Michael Stephen Column


Today Michael talks about Defra. This is a FREE article.


Readers of this column will recall that the UK Dept for the Environment (DEFRA) and the Dept. for Business (BEIS) claimed in their response to their 2019 consultation on Standards for Bio-based, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics, 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 suspected that there was no such consensus, so I requested copies of all the submissions which DEFRA had received.  I have read all the responses, including the 134 documents which DEFRA refused to disclose until they were ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner, and it is clear from this that there was no such consensus and that they had misled Parliament.

The Government were still withholding five of the responses, and on 15th August 2022 I was informed that the Information Commissioner had served notice on DEFRA requiring it to provide its submission and the withheld information within 30 days. I was also informed that if DEFRA failed to comply, it could be found in contempt of court.

DEFRA have now disclosed four of the five remaining responses, and I am insisting on disclosure of the fifth, because if a policy decision is to be made, it is essential to ensure that it is based on sound science and is not just a response to lobbying and/or ill-informed comment.

These are the four responses:

  • BNT. Force Biodegradable Polymers Private Limited

No evidence about plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process, except in support of their own proprietary product.

They do however comment on bio-based plastics as follows: “among other shortcomings is their inability to be recycled. The limited sizes of their products and their exorbitant cost and complex production procedures.  They produce a Bio- based Resin which we are told is often required to be blended with conventional plastic.”

  • University of Reading

No evidence about plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process, but they think it necessary to remove the need to reinforce bio-composites with synthetic or oil-based derivatives.”

They say “Novamont – one of the leading manufactures of biomaterials – state that 500g of petroleum is required for every 1kg of starch-based bioproduct, and the process consumes almost 80% of the energy required to produce a traditional polyethylene polymer.”

“Due to an ever-increasing global awareness of environmental problems, societal concern, and depletion of fossil fuels, the demand for the development of biocomposites – independent of oil-based resources – is higher than ever. Thus far, scientific progress has fallen short on this front; the field being content to settle for sub-par biocomposites with little or no environmental superiority over their oil-based counterparts.”

“It is predicted that, if current trends continue, ~12, 000 million tons of plastic waste will be in the natural environment by 2050 – an order of magnitude higher than present. The main environmental threat of conventional plastic arises from their low rate of degradability, causing both macro- and micro-plastics to persist in soil and water long after use.  Reducing the use of plastics is insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem, instead viable alternatives to plastics, that are 100% biodegradable, need to be created.”   This is exactly the problem which oxo-biodegradable plastics are designed to address.

  • Braskem

No evidence about plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process, but they are against “compostable” plastics.  They say: “currently compostables do not provide any solution to littering or marine plastics” and “We have evidence to suggest that producers of compostable plastic actively seek to mislead consumers”  and “many compostable plastic packaging products are still ending up in recycling streams” and “bio-based plastics score worse than fossil when it comes to water use, eutrophication, land use etc” and “we do not believe that compostable plastics provide an answer to many of the challenges facing plastics right now.”

  • Hi-Cone

They are in favour of plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process in the open environment.  They say “Until the infrastructure exists to enable complete compliance with reuse and recycling, some plastic will inevitably end up in nature. Until such time that there is a viable route to reuse in all areas, biodegradable materials can serve as a stop-gap linear option that has shorter persistence than existing materials.”

On reading these four responses, it is clear that the responses provide no evidence to support the Government’s position that there was a consensus against oxo-biodegradable plastic, and they support my view that there was more of a consensus for banning bio-based plastics – especially of the type marketed as “compostable.”

Reviewing these four responses confirms my suspicion that DEFRA had misled Parliament. 

The Information Commissioner has made it clear that “when any individual or organisation attempts to influence the future direction of a particular public authority, there is a pressing need for transparency so that the public can see who is trying to influence policy and why. This acts as a deterrent for anyone wishing exercise, or to accept, undue influence.”

Readers will be aware that I have been trying since 9 May 2021 to obtain copies of all the submissions which DEFRA claimed had supported its position, and their refusal to disclose these documents has been overruled three times by the Information Commissioner.

I will be calling for an investigation of the government officials responsible for this obstruction and for advising Ministers to make a false statement which has misled Parliament and the public. 

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 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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