Michael Stephen Column

Defra December 2021 (FREE)

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


I have been reading through the 134 documents which DEFRA (the UK Environment ministry) refused to disclose to me until they were ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner. These are responses which DEFRA received to their “Call for Evidence on Standards for Bio-based, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics.” DEFRA are still refusing to disclose five of these responses and I have appealed to the Information Commissioner in respect of them.

Readers of this column will recall that DEFRA said in their response to the consultation that “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 can now see why DEFRA wanted to conceal these documents, because I have not so far found any such consensus. In fact, most of the submissions I have read give no evidence at all in response to Question 11 on “plastics containing prodegradant agents.” There does however seem to be much more of a consensus for banning bio-based plastics – especially of the type marketed as “compostable.” Reasons given include the following:

“There needs to be a justification why drop-in bio-based products would be preferential. Right now these are being used as marketing/green-washing strategies to promote sustainability. Judgements based on CO2 / water / arable land usage need to be made and compared to streamlined petroleum processes.”

“We do not believe that bio-based plastics contribute to a circular economy, as the production and disposal of them is still effectively linear; plants are grown, used to make a product and then ‘disappear’. The material does not have value that is then used to make another product like traditional plastics. There are also the negative implications of land use and pollution of water- courses through fertilisers when growing plants for bio-based plastic.”

“Inherently, bio-based plastics are no different than petroleum-derived plastics in their pathways in the UK. …. Indeed, as the energetics of the biobased feedstock manufacture are higher (and usually have a significantly higher CO2 footprint), this actually creates a larger impact when examining the entire life cycle.”

“The public is well aware of the drawbacks of deforestation for palm oil, even if palm oil can be used as “green” biofuel. Bio-based plastics pose almost identical risks, but the public perception of these risks still seems to be low.”

“companies and industries are changing their packaging strategies in response to immense public and government pressure only to find they have adopted a solution that cannot be composted / degraded in the UK.”

“There is no actual end-of-life or circularity guaranteed with composting, and indeed it may in some instances divert recyclable material into micro- and nano-pollutants.”

“In a trial at one of our compost facilities where some supposedly compostable food containers were introduced to the process, there was very little if any degradation within the in-vessel composting process.”

“Even the Royal Horticultural Society who trialled compostable magazine wrapping for their own magazines concluded that they did not compost satisfactory and therefore decided against adopting them. One would hope that the RHS would know a thing or two about composting”

“Our own investigations have found that films promoted as starch-based/bio-based are often less than 50% starch, with the greater share being made of fossil-based biodegradable petrochemicals (e.g. PBAT). We feel this is highly misleading to the potential users of this film and to the end consumers who accept the materials as “bio-based” in good faith.”

“Bio-based plastics are collected for recycling with food waste however the materials offer no nutritional value in the outputs of anaerobic digestion and composting. More money and carbon may be consumed in order to get bio-based products to an AD plant/composter and as they contribute nothing to the end product these resources may be effectively wasted.”

…..More to follow next week as I continue reading the submissions.

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.

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