Michael Stephen Column

Recycling, OECD and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (FREE)

Today Michael talks about Recycling, the OECD, the US Plastics Pact, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is a FREE article


I have been reading an article in The Atlantic journal which says “Americans support recycling, but although some materials can be effectively recycled, plastics cannot. Plastic recycling does not work and will never work. The United States in 2021 had a recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014.”

“Recycling in general can be an effective way to reclaim natural material resources, but the problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.”

“The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics.”

“Another problem is that the reprocessing of plastic waste—when possible at all—is wasteful. Also, plastic is flammable, and the risk of fires at plastic-recycling facilities [which can produce toxic fumes] affects neighbouring communities—many of which are in low-income localities.”

“Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products are generally collected in kerbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. According to a report published by the Canadian government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.”

“Yet another problem is that plastic recycling is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive.”

“Despite this stark failure, the plastics industry has waged a decades-long campaign to perpetuate the myth that the material is recyclable. This campaign is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s efforts to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes.” 

On 29th April 2022, the Attorney-General of California said “recent reporting has uncovered internal documents from the 1970s warning industry executives that recycling was infeasible and that there was serious doubt that plastic recycling can ever be made viable on an economic basis.  Indeed despite the industry’s decades-long recycling campaign, plastic pollution is as pervasive and as harmful as ever.”


Despite the evidence to the contrary, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) still tells us to recycle plastic. 

It has produced a “Global Plastics Outlook” which sets out a range of projections on plastics to 2060. The report covers plastics use, waste, and the environmental impacts linked to plastics with a focus on leakage to the environment.  The report says that without radical action to curb demand, increase product lifespans, and improve waste management and recyclability, plastic pollution will rise alongside an almost threefold increase in plastic use driven by rising populations and incomes.  The report estimates that almost two-thirds of plastic waste in 2060 will be from short-lived items such as packaging, low-cost products, and textiles.

The author of the OECD report thinks that the way to deal with this problem is to improve waste management and increase recycling.  Nobody would disagree with that (except that recycling of plastics has serious limitations, noted above), but the OECD would have to admit that their ideas are not going to solve the problem in the short to medium term, if at all, – especially in the developing and emerging countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The OECD accepts that growth in the use of plastics will be fastest in these countries.

It must be obvious to anyone who thinks about it that we must stop using ordinary plastic, which can lie or float around for many decades, and start making it with d2w technology.  If it then gets into the open environment, as a lot of it certainly will, it will biodegrade much more quickly, leaving no microplastics or toxic residues.

But what do we find?  We find the Ellen MacArthur Foundation working tirelessly against this technology, with its eyes firmly closed to the consequences of their actions for the environment. 

US Plastics Pact

One of the activities of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is to promote a worldwide network of “Plastics Pacts” which seek to bind stakeholders into behaving in a manner approved by EMF.  One of these “Pacts” is in the United States, which has just identified 11 plastic packaging items in its new “Problematic and Unnecessary Materials list.”

This list is largely irrelevant, as the items comprise a very small share of the overall waste stream, but one of the items, included without any scientific basis, is “oxo-biodegradable additives.”

If anyone takes any notice of this item in their list (which is  not in the lists of “problematic Plastics” recently published by the UK and Scottish Governments, nor in the list published by the Consumer Goods Forum) it would do serious damage to the environment, because stakeholders will then continue to use ordinary plastic, which will continue to get into the open environment where it will not biodegrade, but will accumulate in the oceans until they contain more plastic than fish.

I read an article in Packaging Insights in March 2022.  It said “Some time ago, I became concerned that we are being told a lot about plastics but with little or no evidence presented. Often the information is from a credible looking source, so we assume it is solid and has been checked. Recently a nine year old boy called Milo Cress said that we use 500 million plastic straws per day. That was repeated by the New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, environmental groups and many more. Not one of them checked it. They were so keen to use that nugget that apparently no-one cared whether it was true – and it wasn’t true.”

The American Chemistry Council said “The U.S. Plastics Pact lacked a transparent third-party, data-driven and scientific approach, and its process seems to be rooted in ideology and a predetermined, misguided outcome.”   I agree.

EMF says that it wants to promote a “circular economy,” and “ensure that all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable.”  Re-usable?  Yes, but there are limits – you cannot re-use a contaminated fish wrapper, and cleaning plastic packaging usually makes little sense in economic or environmental terms.   As to recyclability of plastics, see the Article in “Atlantic” above.  As to “compostable” there is nothing circular about the plastics marketed as “compostable” – because they do not convert into compost with any value to the soil.  Instead, they are required by EN13432 and ASTM D6400 to convert into CO2 gas, which is just wasted to atmosphere. See Composting

EMF is registered as a charity, but it is a really big business with income of £12,510,000 as at August 2020, and with 129 employees – seven of whom receive individual benefits between £80,000 and £200,00 per annum.  It has accepted funding from the big “bioplastics” companies, who have been lobbying for years against oxo-biodegradable plastic.

I have noticed that a few stakeholders are still being influenced against oxo-biodegradable plastic by the EMF report, and by the “Oxo-Statement” on their website.

EMF says that “This report was originally published on 6 November 2017, but in June 2018 the report was temporarily removed whilst the Foundation investigated queries raised by a third party.” The third party was Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc, 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,” but 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 have found it inconvenient to take notice 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 Oxomar Report 

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 under the same environmental conditions. Research at Queen Mary University London showed that they will biodegrade up to 90 times faster than ordinary plastic. Report   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 d2w 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 has been made by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), who are the European Union’s scientific experts, 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 to Echa ) 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 that these scientific experts are wrong.

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 distributors of the very 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 Anti Oxo Biodegradable Plastics History   and EMF should remove these from their website forthwith.

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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