Coalition calls for oxo-degradable plastic ban

A coalition of businesses, NGOs, scientists and politicians have come together to call for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging, which has been linked to microplastics pollution.

More than 150 organisations, including Marks & Spencer (M&S), PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia, the British Plastics Federation and 10 members of the European Parliament, have endorsed a statement published by Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy initiative calling for global action.

Oxo-degradable plastics are produced in many countries across the world, including the UK, and is broadly used in packaging and plastic carrier bags. These materials are often touted as a solution to plastic pollution, with some claiming that it biodegrades into harmless residues.

But researchers have disputed this assertion, with a mounting body of evidence showing that oxo-degradable plastics fragment into tiny pieces, including microplastics. This poses an environmental risk, evidence suggests, particularly in the ocean. On top of this, it is believed that these plastics are not suited for effective long-term, recycling at scale or composting.

“The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s lead for systemic initiatives Rob Opsomer said. 

“In addition, these materials are not suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting, meaning they cannot be part of a circular economy.”

Precautionary principle

A growing number of businesses and governments have taken action to restrict the use of oxo-degradable plastics, particularly in Europe. In the UK, retailers such as Tesco and the Co-op have prohibited the use of the plastics in their carrier bag. France, meanwhile, has banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics altogether.

But several nations in the Middle-East and Africa, such as Yemen, the Ivory Coast and Togo, still encourage the use of oxo-degradable plastics, and in some cases, have even made their use mandatory.

Calling for action to be taken by national governments, the coalition statement reads: “We support applying the precautionary principle by banning oxo-degradable plastic packaging from the market until extensive, independent third-party research and testing based on international standards (as used by ISO, CEN and ASTM), possibly combined with technological progress and innovation, clearly confirms sufficient biodegradation of the plastic fragments in different environments, and over a time-scale short enough for particles not to accumulate in ecosystems.”

Consumer backlash?

The issues surrounding plastic packaging are well-versed. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120bn annually, is lost to the economy and on the current track, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050.

Speaking to edie recently, CDP’s head of investor research Carole Ferguson said that plastic packaging producers could face a regulatory backlash similar to the one faced by carmakers in the wake of the dieselgate scandal.

Currently, bio-based plastics account for less than 1% of global plastics production. Demand is being driven a high level through the likes of Coca-Cola (which wants to increase its bio-based material usefrom 30% to 100% in the future).

George Ogleby

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