Michael Stephen Column

Freedom of Information and Plastic Waste Solutions (FREE)

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about Freedom of Information and Plastic Waste Solutions. This is a FREE article.

Freedom of Information

Regular readers of this column will know that the Environment Ministry (DEFRA) of the UK Government is proving very reluctant to disclose all the responses it received to its “Call for Evidence” issued on 22nd July 2019 concerned with STANDARDS FOR BIO-BASED, BIODEGRADABLE, AND COMPOSTABLE PLASTICS.

I have questioned why they are so reluctant to disclose these documents received in response to a public consultation. 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 plastics do biodegrade in the marine environment much more quickly than conventional plastics, and since the European Chemicals Agency after ten months study were not convinced that they create microplastics.

Of the 39 responses disclosed to me by DEFRA, only 4 could be said to give any support to 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

DEFRA have not responded to my request for an internal review, so I have asked the Information Commissioner to order them to make full disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

I was not therefore surprised to read in the Daily Telegraph that the UK government “had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money blocking the release of information to the public.” In the past five years they have spent half a million pounds trying to block requests under the Freedom of Information Act.  Some Departments refused even to disclose their spending, using the excuse tried and tested by bureaucrats that calculating the spending would cost too much!   The research by the NGO “Open Democracy” led to calls on Ministers to “stop using public money to hide from public scrutiny.”

Plastic Waste Solutions

I have been reading an article “Why recycling alone won’t solve the plastic crisis” published by the World Economic Forum and written by Daphna Nissenbaum of TIPA – a compostable plastics company.

I agree with her that “the rate of our consumption of plastic – past and present – means recycling alone isn’t going to get us out of the waste crisis. Of the industry and government commitments made to-date, by 2040 the annual volume of plastic flowing into the ocean will be reduced by just 7%.”

I don’t however agree that “When it comes to the difficult-to-recycle plastics, compostable packaging is a readily available solution.”  She assumes that it can be collected before it gets into the ocean, and then says that “certification requires it to degrade into non-toxic particles within a specific timeframe, either in home composting bins or in industrial composters,” and that “under these conditions it becomes compost that can be used to fertilise our depleting soils..”

This is not correct, because the standards used for certification (EN 13432, ASTM D6400 etc) require the packaging to convert as to 90% into CO2 gas, which is emitted to atmosphere. This contributes to climate change but the plastic does not “become compost that can be used to fertilise our depleting soils.”  It is therefore deceptive to call it “compostable” and brand-owners who use that description could face prosecution under consumer-protection legislation. Moreover, the industrial composters and local authorities do not want it, even for transporting food-waste to their facility. Composters Reject it

Daphna’s fall-back position is that “microperforated compostable packaging extended the shelf-life of cucumbers by five days when compared to conventional plastic packaging” but it is not necessary to use TIPA’s expensive packaging to achieve that objective. You can use ordinary plastic packaging made with an ethylene adsorber masterbatch supplied by Symphony Environmental under its d2p brand  www.d2p.net  which can also be made biodegradable.

However, “the plastics crisis” has nothing to do with composting.  The problem is the huge amount of plastic escaping into the oceans, where it can float around for decades entangling wildlife and creating microplastics.

Daphna accepts that “Oxo-degradable materials provide another potential solution. These conventional plastics have chemical additions that allow them to break down at a faster rate”  but then she says “they can leave behind microplastics, which accumulate in our oceans. When consumed by marine life, microplastics enter our food chain and ultimately our bodies.”

Yes, it’s true that when consumed by marine life, microplastics enter our food chain and ultimately our bodies.  Microplastics are coming from the fragmentation of man-made fibres in clothes while they are being washed, but most of the microplastics found in the environment are coming from the fragmentation of ordinary plastic (ie oxo-degradable plastic) under the influence of weathering, whose molecular weight remains too high to permit biodegradation.  This is the plastic which the EU should have banned, but they have invented a definition which has caused confusion.

The technology which was specifically invented to deal with plastic litter in the open environment is oxo-biodegradable (as distinct from oxo-degradable) plastic.  The European Chemicals Agency was asked to study this in 2018 and were not convinced that it created microplastics, so does Daphna know something that those experts don’t?  Also, most recently a four-year study sponsored by the French government (the OXOMAR project) concluded that oxo-biodegradable plastics biodegrade in the marine environment with much greater efficiency than ordinary (oxo-degradable) plastics. The Marine Environment

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.