Michael Stephen Column

Defra Finally Complies with Disclosure Order (FREE)

Today Michael talks about Defra finally complying with disclosure order. This is a FREE article.

Readers will recall that the UK Dept for the Environment (DEFRA) and the Dept. for Business (BEIS) have been refusing to disclose most of the responses received to their public consultation on Standards for Bio-based, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics.  I therefore appealed to the Information Commissioner, and have at last received all the responses, including the 139 which DEFRA refused to disclose until they were ordered to do so.

The Information Commissioner has made it clear that “when any individual or organisation attempts to influence the future direction of a 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.”

Until very recently the Government were still withholding five of the responses.  I commented on four of them in my column on 21st September 2022, and have now received the fifth and final response – more than 17 months after requesting disclosure!  It is now clear that there was never any justification for withholding these responses, and the delay has been inexcusable. It confirms my suspicion that in this matter DEFRA is not acting in good faith and in the interests of the environment

Having read all the submissions, I am now quite satisfied that DEFRA and BEIS misled Parliament and the public when they said in 2019 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.” There was no such consensus, and the officials concerned need to be disciplined. Perhaps they thought that their deception would never be revealed.

In fact, the submissions contained substantial support for banning bio-based “compostable” plastic and very little support for banning oxo-biodegradable.

I opened this final submission, which DEFRA had struggled so hard to keep secret (they are still withholding the name of the Respondent!) and I find that it contains no support for the so-called consensus. It contains nothing negative about oxo-biodegradable plastic at all, and is very critical of “bio-based” plastics.  As I still don’t know the name of the Respondent I will refer to them as “they” and to their submission as “the Fifth submission.”

The Fifth submission says “Our understanding is that the bags are separated regardless of what they are made from, so they expressly do not enter the anaerobic digestor as they have been found to be indigestible in the bioreactor. In industrial composting, our understanding is that plastics labelled as compostable are generally removed before being added to the composting facility as there is a suspicion (and for them previous evidence) that the plastics will not compost fully or completely.”

I agree with this.  Several studies, including one recently at the University of Bayreuth Biodegradable plastic particles in finished compost show that “finished compost from composting plants contains a large number of biodegradable plastic particles. Also, since applicable legal and certification standards (EN13432, ASTM D6400 etc) are not violated by the sizes and quantities of the particles detected, this calls into question the contribution of these standards to effective environmental protection.”

The output would also be contaminated if conventional plastic bags were used, so the waste processors should not allow any kind of plastic bags to mix with their compost or anaerobic digestion feedstock.  It has been clear for some time that industrial composters do not want bio-based bags – See Composting

The Fifth submission continues “Our understanding is that industrial compost is produced on an 8 to 12 week timeframe depending on the producer. Current standardised testing [eg EN13432 or ASTMD6400] does not replicate this in any way. Our recommendation is that the standards for industrial composting need to be updated with input from industrial composters and not from the compostable plastics industry.” I would agree with this if I thought that there was any role for plastic in the composting industry, which I do not.

They say that “LCA analysis has already shown that intensive agricultural practices used to grow the feedstock crop at the start of the process can consume more water than that of a synthetic chemical plant producing a synthetic plastic.”  Correct, and it is not only water.  Just think of the fossil fuels used to drive the tractors and trucks used in the agricultural production process.  In fact the material with the best LCA is d2w biodegradable plastic. See Lifecycle Assessment

They say “Another unintended consequence that has been proposed is the transferring of land for growing crops for food, to growing crops to produce plastics. In developing countries, as well as in developed countries, there is a real risk that incentives or subsidies could be an economic driver for farmers to move away from producing food.”

They continue “Even on large scales the cost of a bio-based plastic relative to its synthetic equivalent is approximately double. On smaller scales this can rise to 2.5 times to triple the cost for the unit price of packaging. Combining this with the fact that some bio-based plastics require specialised machines and equipment, along with training for plastic convertors to handle the plastic, the overall on-cost can be too great to be considered for large scale commodity packaging.”  I would agree with that.  Bio-based plastic is being kept alive by lobbying, PR, and subsidies – it should be allowed to die quietly.

On ecotoxicity of plastics they say “By using, and including in standardised testing, the established OECD eco-toxicity testing for both land and water organisms, the environmental safety of the biodegradable plastic can be verified both in the short and long-term.”  I would agree with that.  D2w biodegradable plastic is tested to prove non-toxicity according to ASTM D6954 or BS8472 and the OECD ecotoxicity standards, and has been proved to be non-toxic to plants, daphnia, fish, and earthworms.

They say “Current testing regimes for biodegradation in aerobic conditions alongside standards that simulate weathering of plastics are applicable to additive-based biodegradable plastics. They are capable of demonstrating the biodegradability of an additive-based biodegradable plastic should the material be exposed in the open (and on land) environment.” These standardised test methodologies are found in ASTMD6954 (See Swift Evidence to BEIS) and BS8472, which are applicable to environmental conditions found all over the world,  but CEN have not developed a suitable standard because the relevant committee is dominated by the “bio-based” industry.

As to recycling, the Fifth submission says “it is reported that compostable plastics can contaminate recycled plastic processes if they are included in quantities greater than 3 % by weight, and it is for this reason that retailers such as Tesco have removed PLA from their preferred materials supply list for packaging.”  However, “additive-based biodegradable plastics would be recognised by current recycling plastic streams as a standard plastic and thus could be recycled together without the risk of contamination.”  I agree with this. See Recycling

They continue:  “Bio-based and compostable plastics are generally considered a contaminant, and methods are always deployed to separate them and send them for landfill or incineration, thus potentially losing the advantage of recovering the carbon within them, as was intentionally designed within the choice of material.”

“Evidence on the impact on compostable plastics exists in that industrial composters are removing all plastics from their feedstocks suggesting, as they have stated, that they cannot process this material as per their timeframes for producing compost on an industrial scale.”

Answering Q29. How, if at all, would waste collection systems need to be adapted to accommodate the mass introduction of biodegradable plastics?  They say “The effect will depend on the type of biodegrade plastics used. If the biodegradable plastics are additive-based then the effect will be minimal and waste management streams will not have to change. This is because the plastic material will be recognised, sorted and processed as if a conventional (nonbiodegradable) plastic.”

“We are aware that certain countries are beginning to ban standard plastics for [single-use] products/packaging, unless a biodegradable or additive-based biodegradable solution is used as an alternative. There is evidence to suggest that this is a growing market trend and that national standards are also being devised or consulted upon to help support the changes desired in legislation on the use of single use plastics. These alternatives are being sought in regions where waste management systems are limited or non-existent and where the products are incompatible with current mechanical recycling.”

In answer to Question 25. What evidence, if any, is available on the impacts that biodegradability certification and labelling systems may have on consumers’ behaviour towards the disposal of items carrying such labels?  They say:

“There are currently no known studies that demonstrate how consumers behave when confronted with biodegradation certification and labelling systems. However, some of the most relevant work on consumer engagement was done by the World Economic Forum in 2015.  What consumers wanted was for companies to come up with creative initiatives that they could then join and make their own.”  This is exactly what Symphony Environmental has done with its d2w brand.

The Fifth submission advocates that packaging should bear a “recycle by” date, which communicates that the packaging has a clear shelf life which can be set through [additive-based] technology at a date sufficiently distant in the future to give recycling every chance to happen but then once the date lapses the biodegradation process is triggered through that technology.  This allows us to avoid triggering a littering response and instead driving up recycling rates. However, if the waste-management system fails for whatever reason and the packaging becomes fugitive, the brand and the consumer have the confidence of knowing that it will return to nature leaving no microplastic or any harmful environmental effects.”

I would agree with that.

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

Leave a Reply