There is a lot of confusion about biodegradable plastic, caused mainly by articles written by people who may have a scientific background but do not fully understand the very different types of biodegradable plastic. One of these is an article which appeared in Hankyoreh newspaper in Korea on 18.2.22.
It is not clear what the author means by “biodegradable plastic” but she seems to be thinking of the type of plastic marketed as “compostable,” as she says “it biodegrades 90% in 6 months.” She says that this plastic has high environmental friendliness because the speed of degradation is fast, but fails to say that it will biodegrade in that timescale only if collected and taken to an industrial composting facility – Therefore, to call it “biodegradable” is greenwashing.
This type of plastic does not assist governments trying to deal with plastic litter in the open environment from which it cannot realistically be collected, and the author does not give any reason why anyone should buy it. She says it is “3 times more expensive than ordinary plastic” which is probably correct, but she fails to mention that ASTM D6400 and EN13432 require it to convert into CO2 gas, not into compost. It is therefore also greenwashing to call it “compostable.” See https://www.biodeg.org/subjects-of-interest/composting/
Referring to ordinary plastic, she says that “degradation will take a maximum 250 years for a PET bottle, and 5,000 years for high density HDPE, in fact it piles up somewhere in earth.” It is true that ordinary plastic will take an unacceptably long time to become biodegradable in the open environment, but if d2w technology is used in the manufacture of the plastic, the timescale will be very much shorter.
She says that oxo-biodegradable plastic is less expensive than plastic marketed as compostable, and is similar in price to ordinary plastic. This is correct, but she says that “the ‘bio’ word should be taken out of the phrase oxo-‘bio’degradable, because it doesn’t degrade, and the final biodegradable period was not stated explicitly. However, she cites a study showing that it takes 36 months for 90% of it to be broken down. That is a lot better than 5,000 years! In fact, studies performed by Intertek on d2w plastic according to ASTM 6954 are showing 92.74% biodegradation in six months.
The article reports Hwang Seong Yeon from Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology as saying “Even China showed a tendency not to use oxo-biodegradable plastic.” In fact, d2w oxo-biodegradable masterbatch has been sold to Chinese factories for many years, and sales are increasing.
He is also reported as saying “Private association certifies oxo-biodegradable plastic but it doesn’t have public confidence.” In fact d2w oxo-biodegradable plastic is certified by well respected laboratories such as Intertek, and the fact that it is sold in more than 70 countries worldwide suggests that it does enjoy public confidence. In fact, in the Middle East, governments have audited the technology and certified the factories. In the EU, the legislature has confused oxo-degradable with oxo-biodegradable plastic, and their Directive is under challenge in their own courts. In Peru, the government has recently officially recognised that oxo-degradable is not the same as oxo-biodegradable, and that oxo-biodegradable plastic does not leave microplastics.
The article also reports Hong Soo Yeol, Resource Circulation Society Economy lab director, as saying “when introducing oxo-biodegradable plastic, if they are emphasizing ‘ecofriendly’ then it’s greenwashing.” I have to disagree with this. If (as certified by Intertek) the plastic biodegrades much more quickly than ordinary plastic in the open environment, leaving behind no microplastics nor ecotoxicity, it is perfectly reasonable to call it eco-friendly.
The most important scientific studies are as follows:
OXOMAR was a three-year study on plastics in the marine environment, sponsored by the French Government, at l’Observatoire Oceanologique de Banyul Sue Mer. It concluded that plastic made with d2w technology will biodegrade in the marine environment significantly more efficiently than conventional plastic. The Report can be found in English and French at Oxomar Report
QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY LONDON reported in February 2020 that plastic products containing a d2w masterbatch will become biodegradable up to 90 times faster than ordinary plastic. The Report can be found at Queen Mary University Report
EUROPEAN CHEMICALS AGENCY In 2017 the EU Commission referred oxo-biodegradable plastic to ECHA because the Commission was concerned that it might create microplastics. ECHA made a call for evidence, and after studying many hundreds of pages of evidence, including evidence from Symphony Environmental and from Intertek (Intertek Report) they said on 30th October 2018 that they were not convinced that microplastics were formed.
CARBON 13 STUDY PROVES BIODEGRADATION BEYOND DOUBT
In continuation of the OXOMAR project, a study performed by Institut de Chimie de Clermont-Ferrand (ICCF) in France, confirms beyond doubt the abiotic degradation and subsequent biodegradation of Symphony’s d2w biodegradable polyethylene.
A specimen of d2w biodegradable polyethylene was labelled with Carbon 13, and bioassimilation by Rhodococcus rhodochrous bacteria of the oligomer residues of the specimen after abiotic degradation, was evaluated in a closed system, with no other source of carbon present. Biodegradation was determined by carbon dioxide evolution, and Carbon 13 was found in the carbon dioxide exhaled by the bacteria.
This is yet further proof of bioassimilation by microorganisms of the material which originated as d2w biodegradable polyethylene film.
In the UK House of Commons on 27th June 2022 the Environment Minister, Jo Churchill, said “Plastics often get a bad name, but they are incredibly important and useful because their strength and versatility make them a very valuable material in many areas of life. For example, the plastic packaging that challenges us when we try to get rid of it also preserves our food and plays a key part in extending the shelf life of some items and in reducing food waste.”
I would agree with that, but she then said “However, plastics cause problems when they leak out of the system into the environment. They can pollute our waterways and oceans and harm our wildlife.”
DEFRA are trying to reduce the amount escaping into the environment, and to recycle what can be collected, but a significant amount will still escape for the foreseeable future. What is their policy for that? They don’t have one. However, if DEFRA were to require the use of d2w technology in all short-life plastics they would biodegrade much more quickly and be cleaned out of the eco-system by naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi.
If DEFRA have read the Oxomar Report, The Queen Mary Report, and the Carbon 13 report, they can no longer be in any doubt that it does biodegrade significantly faster than ordinary plastic in the open environment, and does not leave microplastics behind.
FOOD SHORTAGES AND BIO-BASED PLASTIC
The war in Ukraine has focused everyone’s mind on using every acre of arable land to produce food, and not to use it to produce crops such as corn or potatoes to make “bio-based” plastic.
However, consumers and retailers are still being misled into buying expensive products made from a type of bio-based plastic marketed as “compostable,” even though the suppliers know that the industry standards EN13432 and ASTMD6400 require it to convert into CO2, not into compost.
Governments used to think that this type of plastic would help them to solve the plastic litter problem, until they realised that it is tested to biodegrade in an industrial composting unit – not in the open environment. – and for that reason it is deceptive simply to call it biodegradable.
Even in an industrial composting unit it may still generate microplastics. It was reported in “Technology Networks” on 30th June 2022 that a study by the University of Bayreuth shows that finished compost from composting plants in Germany contains a large number of biodegradable plastic particles, and that this draws into question whether biodegradable plastics are suitable for replacing conventional plastics in environmentally and nutritionally sensitive areas.”
Governments and retailers also used to think that it would help them to reduce food-waste, until they realised that the local authorities and the industrial composters do not want waste food to be wrapped in it ( Composting ). Actually, the best way to reduce food-waste is to sell food packaged in ordinary plastic, which protects it from contamination and deterioration. Provided the plastic is made with d2w technology it will not lie or float around in the environment for decades if it becomes litter. Ordinary plastic, and d2w plastic, is made from a by-product of oil refining which used to be wasted, and so long as oil is needed for fuels there will be plenty of this available.
The last argument left to the suppliers of “bio-based” and “compostable” plastic is that it is made from “renewable” resources ie agricultural crops, but this argument is no longer available to them. Actually it never was a good argument if you take into account the fossil fuels used and the CO2 emitted during the agricultural production and polymerisation processes. I noticed on 30th June 2022 that an Italian producer of “compostable” plastic is closing its factory for an indefinite period.
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 Biodegradable Plastics Association.
Earlier Postings in this Column
All articles of Michael Stephen can be found here
- 1/ 1/ 20 – Plastiphobia, Microplastics and A Throw-Away Society
- 7/ 1/ 20 – Recycling, Lab Testing, Bangladesh and the Right Bioplastic
- 14/1/20 – Plastiphobia and Bioplastics Definitions
- 21/1/20 – Composting, the European Union and Unemployment
- 30/1/20 – Plastiphobia, Malaysia and a Case Against Compostables and Paper
- 7/02/20 – Coronavirus, MPs Letter, Montreal, Australia and the Dominican Republic
- 14/02/20 – Oman, MacArthur Foundation, Stifling Innovation, South Africa and Compostable Plastics
- 24/02/20 – Serbia, India, Pakistan and European Bioplastics
- 03/03/20 – Plastic To Protect Health and Common Sense on Plastic
- 10/03/20 – Plastiphobia, Singapore, Compostable Plastics, Doorknobs and Carbios
- 17/03/20 – Greening our Way to Infection, Defra Warns Against Bioplastics and Montreal
- 24/03/20 – Ditch the Plastic Bag Ban and Inn-Probio
- 01/04/20 – The Come Back of Plastic Bags, Compostable Plastic Not Wanted and EASAC
- 16/04/20 – Coronavirus and Agricultural Plastics
- 11/05/20 – Coronavirus, Peru, Barbados and Recycling
- 18/05/20 – Say No to Plastiphobia, False Descriptions and the Recycling Myth
- 02/06/20 – Definitions and More Setbacks for Plastiphobia
- 11/06/20 – BBIA, Food Waste and Testing of OXO-Biodegradable Plastic
- 19/06/20 – Oxo Biodegradation, Independent Reports and Precautionary Principle
- 29/06/20 – Banana Republic, Why Turn Plastic into CO2 and Plastic Waste from Ships
- 13/07/20 – Running Scared, The Daily Telegraph and Market Report
- 20/07/20 – Tipa, Plastics Today and The American Genius
- 27/07/20 – Coronavirus, Plastic Litter, Bahrain and Polymateria
- 17/08/20 – Plastics Europe, Confusing Issues and Paper
- 25/08/20 – Professor Emo Chiellini, Plastics Today, Greenwashing and Coronavirus
- 28/09/20 – Kill the Virus, Marine Degradation, Airports, Brazil Retail, Plastic Growth and Face Mask
- 08/10/20 – Compostable vs Biodegradable, Covid 19 and New British Bioplastic Standard
- 27/10/20 – Power of Lobbying, Paper and Cotton Worse than Plastic
- 02/11/20 – Covid 19 and Five Myths About Plastic
- 09/11/20 – Support for OXO BIO, Westminster Forum, Euractiv and Covid
- 23/11/20 – Toxicity of Bio-based and Biodegradable Plastics, and Covid Scaremongering
- 15/12/20 – Recycling and An Article from Austria
- 21/12/20 – EU Scientific Advisers, China Chose Wrong Bioplastics and Covid Nonsense
- 05/01/20 – EU, Covid Lockdowns, WRAP, British Standards Institution and Polymateria
- 12/01/21 – Intertek and Composting
- 19/01/21 – Recycling and Exporting Plastic Waste
- 22/02/21 – Seaweed Plastic, Orange Peel and Xampla
- 02/03/31 – OXO Biodegradable Plastic
- 08/03/21 – EU Scientific Reports and Paper vs Plastic
- 15/03/21 – India, Australia and Dow Chemicals
- 14/04/21 – Oxomar, UK Government and Microplastics
- 26/04/21 – Plastic to the Rescue of Covid and More News from Brazil
- 04/05/21 – Packaging Digest
- 07/06/21 – Minderoo Report and Korea Herald
- 30/06/21 – Recycling, Is the Use of Biobased Plastics Increasing, Confused Australians and Biodegradable Future
- 12/07/21 – EU Flawed Directive, Thailand and Pakistan
- 21/07/21 – Directors Talk, Confusion, Stir Magazine and Dumping Plastic Waste
- 02/08/21 – Angry Farmers, DEFRA and Substitutes for Plastic
- 06/09/21 – Microplastics
- 13/09/21 – UK Government, Defra and David Newman
- 20/09/21 – Michael Stephen Video Interview on Antimicrobial and Biodegradable Packaging
- 05/10/21 – Freedom of Information and Plastic Waste Solutions
- 14/10/21 – Michael Stephen at Pack4Change Summit
- 22/10/21 – Plastic from Algae and Carbon Dioxide
- 15/11/21 – Defra
- 22/11/21 – Defra, India, Food Service Footprint Magazine and Waste 360
- 30/11/21 – RWM Digital Spotlight and Plastiphobia
- 17/12/21 – Disposal in the Right Way and Defra Consultation Responses
- 04/01/22 – Precautionary Principle, Anti Oxo Campaign and Defra
- 11/01/22 – Microplastics
- 17/01/22 – Michael Laurier, A Saucy Problem and Unilever
- 21/02 /22 – No Alternative for Plastic
- 08/03/22 – Sustainable Agriculture, Canada, Consequence of Banning, United Nations
- 14/03/22 – Plastiphobia
- 04/04/22 – Virgin Mobile, Defra, OXO, Microplastics, End of Life Options
- 11/04/22 – Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- 09/05/22 – Response to Association of Plastic Recyclers
- 16/05/22 – Wrap and More Bad News for Compostable Plastics in UK Parliament
- 30/05/22 – A Threat to Humanity and Market Research
- 13/06/22 – Recycling, OECD and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Interview with Michael Stephen
The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.