Michael Stephen Column

UK Government, Defra and David Newman (FREE)

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about the UK Government, Defra and David Newman. This is a FREE article.

UK Government – Defra

In my column on 2nd August I said that I had insisted on full disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of the evidence received by the government in response to its call for Evidence on “Standards for bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics.”  They had sent me only 39 of the 84 responses and have failed to respond to my renewed request for the others.  Perhaps we will now have to ask for a court order.

Why are they so reluctant to disclose these documents?  Is it because they could be seen to have misled Parliament when they said “There was a clear consensus in relation to plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process, which was that such technologies are unproven and likely to be a source of microplastic pollution.”

I thought it unlikely that there was any such consensus, as the Oxomar Report from France had proved beyond doubt that these plastic do biodegrade in the marine environment much more quickly than conventional plastics, and as the European Chemicals Agency after ten months study had found no evidence that they create microplastics.

Of the 39 responses sent to me, only 4 could be said to give any support DEFRA’s claim, and 3 were positively in favour of oxo-biodegradable plastic.  That does not seem to me like a “clear consensus.”  Of the 4 against, two of these were from the “compostable” plastics industry which is desperate to exclude competition from oxo-biodegradable plastic, and their “evidence” was not only commercially motivated, but consisted simply of assertions with no scientific basis.

I have therefore insisted on full disclosure, for if a policy decision is to be made, it is essential to ensure that it is based on sound science and is not just a response to lobbying. We made it clear that if any of the responses contained commercially confidential information (which is unlikely) it could be redacted.  One of the responses which they are hiding is from the BBIA.

See Symphony Wins Battle of Words with Compostable Plastics Industry.

David Newman

I have just been watching a 35-minute interview with David Newman, the leading lobbyist for crop-based plastics which are marketed as compostable. He is the MD of the “Bio-based and Biodegradable Plastics Association” (BBIA) which he tells us is financed by the big bio-based plastic companies BASF, Sphere, and Novamont.

His central thesis is that these plastics are necessary if we want to make use of food-waste. He said “you need compostable materials to treat food waste.”

Most of us would agree that food waste is a useful product, which can be converted into compost or biogas, and that it should be wrapped in plastic for transportation, but it does not need to be wrapped in the type of plastic which he is marketing.

Even industrial composters and local authorities do not want it.

Epsom & Ewell Borough Council in the UK tells its residents: “We used to ask you to use bio-liners to line your food-waste caddy, but the food-waste recycling companies found that bio-liners compost down much more slowly than the food. That slowed the recycling process and made it much more expensive. They tried dredging the bio liners out of the food waste, but the sticky bio-liners got tangled around the dredging equipment. Cleaning them off was very expensive. So they found that using ordinary plastic bags was, overall, much more cost-effective.”

“When you use plastic bags in your food waste caddy you’re simply using them to contain the food, and keep your caddy clean. They don’t get recycled. In fact, the first thing that happens when your food waste gets to the recycling plant is the plastic bags are all dredged out. They’re sent off for burning along with normal refuse to generate electricity. After that, the food waste can be recycled.”

In his interview, David Newman said “Some people say they can’t use compostable plastics because there’s no infrastructure.  That’s wrong because there are 240 composting plants in the UK treating compostable waste every day.” Yes, they are treating vegetable waste which turns into compost, but they do not want plastic of any kind.  Not only Epsom & Ewell, but in January 2020, the industrial composters of Oregon gave 9 reasons why they do not want it  See Composting

I noticed that even David Newman is no longer claiming that these plastics convert into compost. 

He said “Compostable plastic can be composted and go back to soil.” It is true that it can be put into an industrial composting unit, but it does not convert into compost because EN13432 and ASTM D6400 require it to convert into CO2 gas.  Nor does it go back to soil, because the CO2 gas escapes to atmosphere (and causes climate change), and nothing much goes back to the soil except fragments of undegraded plastic which the farmers and growers do not want in their soil.

He approves the use of plastic mulching films by farmers, but the problem with his type of plastic is that it cannot be adjusted to the particular growing cycle in the particular climate. However, oxo-biodegradable plastic mulch films can be adjusted by changing the balance in the masterbatch between the active ingredients and the stabilisers, and they work very well. 

Finally, the main problem with plastic is litter in the open environment, which has nothing to do with composting.  David Newman asks the rhetorical question “are we going to carry on polluting our soils with plastics?” The answer is Yes, if we continue to use conventional plastic, or plastic designed to biodegrade in the special conditions found in industrial composting, but not if we use oxo-biodegradable plastic, which is designed to biodegrade rapidly in the open environment and needs no special conditions.

Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen is a lawyer and was a member of the United Kingdom Parliament, where he served on the Environment Select Committee. When he left Parliament Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc. attracted his attention because of his interest in the environment. He is now Deputy Chairman of Symphony, which is listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, and is the founder and Chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

Earlier Postings in this Column

Interview with Michael Stephen


The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.