Michael Stephen Column OXO

Precautionary Principle, Anti Oxo Campaign and Defra (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 precautionary principle, the anti-Oxo campaign and Defra. This is a FREE article.

The Precautionary Principle

The so-called “precautionary principle” is much loved by the EU.  It was described by Lord Sumption in the London Daily Telegraph on 31st December as “essentially a principle for making decisions radically affecting people’s lives without adequate evidence.”    

Lord Sumption is one of the United Kingdom’s most distinguished jurists.  He was a judge of the Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal in the UK for all civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.

The Anti-Oxo Campaign

I have read a remarkable article in Bioplastics News on 6th December, (The Anti Oxo History) researched and written by the editor, Axel Barrett, in which he reveals disreputable behaviour by the bio-based plastic industry.

He shows that for nearly ten years they have been lobbying for legislation against oxo-biodegradable plastic, ostensibly out of concern for the environment, but in reality to stop companies with a better plastic technology from competing with them.

Starting with legislation in Italy to give bio-based “compostable” plastic a monopoly, and a court case in Italy to put a small oxo-biodegradable competitor out of business, they then start lobbying against oxo-biodegradable plastic in the European Parliament.  Bioplastics News has published internal documents from their lobbying organisation “European Bioplastics” (EUBP) and the editor comments that “the boycott of my person and BioplasticsNews.com was discussed and recommended during an official EUBP meeting in early 2020. The reason being that I allowed the Oxo-biodegradable industry to express their opinion in Bioplastics News.”

The editor then refers to a 2015 agenda item  “Promoting an EU-wide ban on oxo-degradable plastics.”   Eventually they persuaded the EU to ban what they call “oxo-degradable” plastic, by evading all the safeguards in the REACH procedure and by ignoring the EU’s own technical experts, the European Chemicals Agency. They are very proud of their success in manipulating the EU legislative process, and their chief lobbyist has boasted about it, but as a result the EU is now charged in its own courts with a misuse of legislative power. See OPA Member Sues the EU

Not content with manipulating the European Parliament, they are also determined to prevent CEN (the European standards body) from doing its job.   A 2017 report of their Product Group says “The group agrees that any development of Standards for oxo-degradable materials should be stopped right at the beginning.”  Having obtained from CEN the European Standard EN13432 which they use to promote their own “compostable” products, they have packed the relevant CEN Committees with their supporters to deny the oxo industry a similar standard.  Worse than that, their activities have denied the people of Europe a standard for evaluating the environmental benefits of oxo-biodegradable plastic.  Companies and government officials are therefore relying on the American standard ASTM D6954, or the British Standard BS8472, or the French Accord T51-808.

Following their success in the EU, they  have turned their attention to the UK, and have set up a lobbying organisation called the BBIA, which is attempting to mislead the UK Government.  See Symphony Wins Battle of Words with Compostable Plastics Industry

The editor of Biopastics News concludes his article with the following thoughts:

“How can you promote a sustainable and circular solution through immoral means?  If the BASF technology (PBAT) is really working, why do they need to use this kind of discriminatory and immoral practice to damage their competitors?  Anyone who values innovation should be against big companies who try to control the market. Does anyone believe they are campaigning on behalf of the environment?   It was a wrong strategic choice to start this anti Oxo campaign because eventually it backfired against the compostable plastics industry.”

It is time for Europe’s companies and consumers to tell these people what they think of their behaviour by refusing to buy their product. It is also time for government officials to treat their representations and their motives with the suspicion that they deserve.

DEFRA (continued)

I have continued 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, and having read them I can see why DEFRA did not want me to see them. These are responses which DEFRA received to their “Call for Evidence on Standards for Bio-based, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics.”  DEFRA have still failed to disclose five of these responses and I have appealed to the Information Commissioner in respect of them.  It is essential to know whether the government is being misled. 

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 have still not found any such consensus.  In fact, most of the submissions give no evidence at all in response to Question 11 on “plastics containing prodegradant agents” but there is much more of a consensus for banning bio-based plastics – especially of the type marketed as “compostable.”  Further reasons I have found (in addition to the ones already published in my column) include the following:

“Compostable plastics based on PLA could lead to the generation of microplastics. Compostable plastics could also contaminate recyclate and contribute to the generation of pollution if they are put in the wrong waste stream.” 

“Fundamentally the introduction of bio plastics does not deal with the issue of single use plastics and without research to back it up there is no evidence of what role bio plastics can play in the aim to eliminate avoidable plastic waste.”

“There is already significant confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable.  There could be two identical pieces of plastic packaging, one normal plastic and one bio-plastic and the public are unlikely to take the time to try to find out which is which.” 

“Some operators of organics processing facilities do not accept these materials due to the potential impact on the certification of their products. There is difficulty in operatives at the point of collection being able to identify those bags that are EN1342 compliant.”

“How do anaerobic digestion, composting, and energy-from-waste operators currently manage compostable plastics in areas where food waste is collected in bags/liners?Most facilities have de-packaging equipment at the front end.” 

“These have often been marketed as compostable as per specific standards which do not appear to be the conditions, temperatures or retention times to which most UK composting facilities operate.” 

“Our experience of some compostable materials is that they are often not compostable in the conditions of operational facilities.”

“We believe that whatever label is applied there will still be an unacceptable risk that compostable materials will end up in recycling streams for conventional plastics, and conventional plastics may end up in collection streams for compostable plastics, causing unacceptable contamination of final products.” 

“We have viewed the risk of contamination to be too great on the basis of the trials which we have done to allow us to accept the wide range of supposedly compostable materials at our composting facilities.”

“Where compostable liners are used to collect food waste it depends on whether the food is co-collected with garden waste and sent to IVC composting or AD. If sent to AD, it will be treated as a contaminant and extracted in the pre-processing stage (often the de-packaging) and sent for disposal or energy from waste. Our own composting facilities to not promote the use of such materials.” 

“Q30 How do anaerobic digestion, composting, and energy-from-waste operators currently manage compostable plastics in areas where food waste is collected in bags/liners?  They take it out with the normal plastics prior to processing as contamination to protect the quality of the compost.” 

“PLA may persist in the marine environment and fragment into microplastics – research has shown the PLA microparticles (like microplastics) can cause a significant decrease in feeding rate in lugworms and a significant reduction in sediment micro-algae (which many worms and other benthic species feed on) – reducing primary production in marine sediment habitats.”

“Growth in the use of Bio-based polymers which are not degradable in the marine environment and are not recycled e.g. current commercially available polymers such as Bio-PE, PLA2, 5, could lead to an increase in waste which may continue to contribute to litter.” 

“If introduced into recycling streams, they contaminate them and reduce the value of the recycled plastics produced.

  • If introduced into food waste collection, they are mostly rejected because anaerobic digesters are not optimised to process them.
  • There is confusion over whether biodegradable plastics can be put into domestic compost and whether they even compost on a reasonable timescale.” 

“The industrial processing of food waste requires different conditions to those required for compostable plastics, which are rejected at these facilities.” 

“A standard recycling facility is not equipped to deal with food-contaminated packaging, so most of this material ends up in landfill, or is incinerated. Also, screening systems  are utilised in composting plants to remove any possible contaminants, including plastics. As these systems are not able to differentiate between compostable and non-compostable plastics (due to their similar weights, densities, and visual appearance), compostable plastics are generally excluded from existing anaerobic digestion plants, even at low volumes.” 

“Most biodegradable plastics require industrial composting to biodegrade and must therefore be collected for degradation. As with recycling, transport, and energy are required for this waste management, which results in CO2 emissions.” 

“In most circumstances, the use of plant-based feedstock has greater environmental impact on soil acidification, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, and ozone depletion production (except when agricultural waste is used as the feedstock).” 

“There is a potential moral hazard whereby those who sell compostable packaging as a solution to the plastic waste crisis may be relying on the public’s ignorance of the specialist collection and processing methods that are necessary for it to be a sustainable option.”  

“Increased demand for sugarcane and corn as feedstocks for bio-based plastics risk incentivising deforestation in tropical, bio-diverse countries.” 

“Bio-based plastics PET and HDPE made from sugarcane, use tens of times more irrigation water than fossil-based PET and HDPE.” 


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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