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EU legislators fail to understand the science

on a roll

Every day we hear about the huge prob­lem caused by plastics in the environ­ment, but we are never told about innovative solutions.

Ordinary plastic will fragment in the open environment and persist for dec­ades as microplastics before it becomes biodegradable. By contrast, if the manufacturer adds Symphony Environmental’s d2w catalyst to the plastic, the resulting material will become biodegradable much more quickly. This upgrade could be made tomorrow at little extra cost to plastics factories.

Whenever I explain this to people they say “this is just what we need – why aren’t all the plastics factories doing it?” The answer is that factories around the world are using d2w technology, and in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan and seven other countries it is compulsory – you cannot export there without it.

But in the UK and EU there is resistance. Governments have been lobbied by companies making a more expensive and less useful type of biodegradable plastic, who see d2w as a threat to their market share – as well as by big companies who pay lip-service to the environ­ment but do not actually want to change their ways and by people who would like to ban plastic altogether.

As long as this resistance continues, thousands of tonnes of ordinary plastic will get into the oceans every week.

If the resistors succeed, they will do great damage to the environment by depriving Europe of the only way to deal with plastic waste which has escaped into the oceans, from which it cannot realistically be collected for recycling or anything else. The resistors do not, of course, give the real reason for their opposition; instead they claim that the technology does not work. So we asked a distinguished lawyer, Peter Susman QC, to review the scientific evidence.

He concluded that the d2w technology “does facilitate the ultimate biodegradation of plastics in air or seawater by bac­teria, fungi or algae, within a reasonable time, so as to cause the plastic to cease to exist as such, far sooner than ordinary plastics, without causing any toxicity; and the benefit is obvious of reducing future contributions to the scourge of plastic pollution of land and sea”.

“The degradation process is not only a fragmentation but an entire change of the material…to oxygen-containing molecules which can be bioassimilated.”

Professor Ignacy Jakubowicz

He also concluded that the technology is compatible with composting and recycling.

Lobbying by the resistors has been most effective in the EU, where they persuaded the Parliament’s Environment Committee to ban ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic. But an objection to this was made in the plenary session on 27 March 2019.

Stuart Agnew MEP said: “Parliament has not been made aware that if we accept the reference to oxo-degradable plastics in Article 5 of this Directive, we would be evading the EU’s own rules for banning substances. These are set out in Articles 68-73 of the REACH Regulation (1907/2006) and we cannot just ignore them.”

These rules were enacted to ensure that the science is properly understood and that all stakeholders are consulted before any legislation is passed.

In December 2017, the European Commission had mandated its scientific experts (ECHA) to study oxo-degradable plastic. The Commission did this in the belief that it creates microplastics, failing to understand the evidence of many scientists, including Swedish Professor Ignacy Jakubowicz, that: “The degradation process is not only a fragmentation, but is an entire change of the material from a high molecular weight polymer, to…oxygen-containing molecules which can be bioassimilated.”

ECHA is expected to report in July, but on 30 October 2018 its experts said they were not convinced that microplastics are formed by oxo-degradable plastics. It is important to note that at this point the Environment Committee was persuaded to bypass ECHA and insert a ban directly into the draft Directive.

The prohibition that the Directive would impose is explained in Recital 15, that “this type of plastic does not properly biodegrade and thus contributes to microplastic pollution in the environment”. This is the central rationale for the prohibition, and is the question that ECHA has been asked to investigate.

But the prohibition could not apply to oxo-biodegradable plastic because it is scientifically proved that it does properly biodegrade, that it does not contribute to microplastic pollution and does not negatively affect the recycling of conventional plastic.

Michael Laurier is chief executive at Symphony Environmental Technologies

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