Michael Stephen Column

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (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 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is a FREE article.

I have noticed that a few stakeholders are still being influenced against oxo-biodegradable plastic by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) report of November 2017, and by the “Oxo-Statement” on their website.

EMF say that “This report was originally published on 6 November 2017. In June 2018 the report was temporarily removed whilst the Foundation investigated queries raised by a third party.” The third party was Symphony Environmental, who had engaged lawyers to point out to EMF that their report was inaccurate and deceptive. A meeting was held at which it was discovered that the author of the report is not a scientist, and that he had misunderstood the scientific papers which he had cited – see EMF Report  He had not carried out any scientific research, and the report was based entirely on a selective literature review.

EMF avoided a court action by publishing a revised report with a fundamental difference.  The 2017 report said that oxo-bio plastic simply fragmented, but they admitted in their May 2019 report that “oxo-degradable” plastics are manufactured so that they can degrade faster than conventional plastics and that they do become biodegradable.”

In their “Oxo-Statement” EMF say “Oxo-degradable plastics are being produced and sold in many countries, with society being led to believe that they completely biodegrade in the environment within relatively short timescales.”  EMF do not seem to understand the difference between oxo-degradable and oxo-biodegradable plastics. In fact, oxo-degradable plastics (as defined by CEN in TR15351) are ordinary plastics, which degrade abiotically, but do not biodegrade in the environment at all – except over a very long period of time. 

By contrast, it is perfectly reasonable to lead society to believe that oxo-biodegradable plastics “completely biodegrade in the environment within relatively short timescales.” EMF do not seem to be aware of the detailed research in the three-year “Oxomar” study, sponsored by the French government, in the real-world environment on the coast of France. The scientists reported in March 2021 that oxo-biodegradable plastic does properly biodegrade in the open environment much more quickly and efficiently than ordinary plastic. The Oxomar report can be found in English and French at Marine Biodegradation proved beyond doubt 

EMF continue in their “oxo-statement” that “compelling evidence suggests that oxo-degradable plastics take longer than claimed to degrade.” This is a meaningless statement, because nobody makes degradation claims in respect of oxo-degradable plastic.

If EMF are intending to refer to oxo-biodegradable plastic, they should say so, and should say who is making the claims, and what timescale is being claimed.  Nobody is claiming that oxo-biodegradable plastic products will degrade instantly (otherwise they would have no useful life), but it can certainly be claimed that they will degrade and biodegrade, very much more quickly than ordinary plastic. Research at Queen Mary University London has shown that they will biodegrade up to 90 times faster than ordinary plastic. Microbial Degradation of Plastic in Aqueous Solutions 

Indeed, the length of the useful life of the plastic item can be programmed by adjusting the formulation of the oxo-biodegradable masterbatch.  

EMF continue that “they fragment into small pieces which contribute to microplastics pollution.”  Nobody doubts that this is true of oxo-degradable (i.e. ordinary) plastic, and this is why it should not be used for short-life products unless upgraded with oxo-biodegradable technology. 

The “precautionary principle” is often relied upon by EMF, who seem to think that it means “ban first and ask questions later.”  It was described by Lord Sumption on 31st December 2021 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.

The view of the European Court of Justice in T-13/99 Pfizer Animal Health SA v Council ECLI:EU:T:2002:209 is that “…if it is not to adopt arbitrary measures, which cannot in any circumstances be rendered legitimate by the precautionary principle, the competent public authority must ensure that any measures that it takes, even preventive measures, are based on as thorough a scientific risk assessment as possible.”

“As thorough a scientific risk assessment as possible” in relation to oxo-biodegradable plastic would be made by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), who are the European Union’s scientific experts in this field, but EMF do not mention in their “Oxo-statement” that in 2017 ECHA made a call for evidence on this very subject. It received a large amount of evidence from a wide range of stakeholders (see eg the Evidence from Intertek at Intertek Report ) and said on 30th October 2018 that it is not convinced that it creates microplastics.  The non-scientist author of the EMF Reports offers no evidence to show that ECHA is wrong.

Notwithstanding this statement from ECHA, EMF are still leading stakeholders to believe that “oxo-degradable plastics should be banned until further detailed research is carried out on their behaviour in real world environments.”  As mentioned above, such research has now been carried out in the Oxomar project and at Queen Mary University London.

The EMF Report shows that it is endorsed by a large number of companies and organisations, some of which are aggressively promoting a competing (“compostable”) plastic technology, and others are themselves producers of many of the plastic articles which are found as litter in the environment. EMF has been formally requested by lawyers acting for Symphony to declare the amounts of money received from those companies and organisations, but has failed to do so.

The UK Charities Commission should investigate whether the “Oxo-statement” and the Reports were published by EMF with the improper motive of assisting a commercial and political campaign against the oxo-biodegradable plastics industry.  See History of Anti Oxo  

It is important that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation remove the misleading “Oxo-Statement” from their website forthwith.

If EMF and their financial supporters succeeded in their campaign against oxo-biodegradable plastic, they would have deprived the world of the only means yet available to deal with long-term pollution of the environment by the plastic waste which does not get collected for responsible disposal.

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

All articles of Michael Stephen can be found here

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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