Government to explore ban on oxo-degradable plastics

The UK Government is considering introducing a ban on types of plastics that can breakdown naturally, following an evidence-gathering consultation into the environmental impacts of plastics and alternative materials.

Oxo-degradable plastics have proven controversial for years

Oxo-degradable plastics have proven controversial for years

The Government launched a consultation back in July 2019, seeking evidence on the potential implementation of standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, based on their impact on the environment.

In particular, the consultation aimed to gain an informed understanding of the impacts of “oxo-degradable” plastics. Oxo-degradable plastics are either bio-based or fossil-fuel-based plastics that have been designed to degrade by oxidation.

Oxo-degradable plastics typically contain a chemical additive that triggers fragmentation when the material is exposed to heat or UV rays. Manufacturers have claimed that these fragments then biodegrade, but research into some oxo-degradable materials has revealed that this is not always the case. 

These types of plastics have been banned by the European Commission, through the European Single-Use Plastics Directive, which the UK voted in support of. However, this is one of the few environmental frameworks not transposed into UK law as part of the Brexit withdrawal.

The UK Government finally provided an update to this consultation this week. The response document outlines that a potential ban on oxo-degradable plastics could soon be introduced.

“We are taking forward a number of policy proposals informed by the evidence received in response to this call. This includes further consultations on extended producer responsibility for packaging and consistent recycling collections,” the report states. “The responses will also inform future policies aimed at tackling single-use plastic and the application of HMT’s plastic packaging tax. We are also minded to introduce a ban on oxo-degradable plastics, subject to further evidence and a public consultation.”

Oxo-degradable plastics have proven controversial for years. They are technically degradable and some strains do break down outside of industrial conditions. But studies have found that some strains simply break into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in microplastic pollution, while others need to be exposed to additives under industrial conditions for degradation to begin.

This has led to campaigners calling for an outright ban on the sale of the material. Last year, for example, representatives from the likes of Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi and the Co-op signed an open letter to Ministers calling for a ban on plastics which are only degradable in industrial conditions with chemical additives.

The letter urged the UK to follow suit from the EU and implement a legally binding ban on oxo-degradable plastics.

Concerns also exist that the environmental benefits of oxo-degradable plastics have been over-emphasised to Ministers. The British Standards Institution (BSI), for example, filed for a new specification in 2020 to support the sale of these materials.

Those within the industry believe the material is being unfairly scapegoated. In January 2018, the European Commission asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to investigate the environmental impact of “oxo-degradable” on those concerns. The industry notes that the ban issued under the Single Use Plastics Directive was introduced before ECHA had provided a detailed response. Those within the industry maintain that the material can degrade in a safe manner.

Matt Mace



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