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War of words over oxo-biodegradable plastic

Supporters of oxo-biodegradable plastics (OBP) have criticised a call from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) for a worldwide ban on the materials, claiming they are ”more acceptable from an environmental point of view than conventional plastic”.

More than 150 organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Marks & Spencer, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia and the British Plastics Federation (BPF) recycling group, have endorsed the EMF statement calling for global action against OBP to avoid “wide-scale environmental risk”.

Rob Opsomer, lead for systemic initiatives at the foundation, said: “The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests that OBP do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution.

“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.”

BPF recyclers argue that OBP cannot currently be detected or removed from the recycling stream, and the risk of secondary plastics having OBP material within it could prevent those plastics from being recycled.

They say this limits the end markets available for recycled plastics and hinders the growth of the industry.

A statement said: “It is essential that the impact of new products on existing recycling systems is considered before products are put on the market.”

OPBs are not compostable under international standards, according to the the EMF.

But Michael Stephen, chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA) has set out a detailed response, quoting a report to the European Commission by consultancy Eunomia.

The OPA quotes the report as saying: “It is possible for [OBP] plastic to fully mineralise in an open environment, with the pro-degradant additives encouraging this action, and thus the polymers and entrained substances can be assimilated into the natural environment.”

Another section of the report is quoted: “The debate around the biodegradability of [OBP] is not finalised, but should move forward from the assertion that it merely fragments towards confirming whether the time frames observed for total biodegradation are acceptable from an environmental point of view and whether this is likely to take place in natural environments.”

It also claims Dame Ellen is not a scientist and the EMF is supported by well-endowed groups whose business interests are against OBP.

Erin Simon, director of sustainability research and development for the WWF, insisted that OBP is not a solution for litter.

“Their use in waste management systems will likely cause negative outcomes for the environment and communities,” he said. “When public policy supports the cascading use of materials – systems where materials get reused over and over – this strengthens economies and drives the development of smarter materials management systems. This leads to wins for both the environment and society.”

The BPF is staging a seminar on ’Recycling the Unrecyclable’ to explore the threats and opportunities faced by the recycling sector. Panel member Bernard Chase of WRAP said: “A combination of increasing concern over plastics in the marine environment, coupled with China’s proposed ban on certain grades of plastic packaging waste, offers UK plastics recyclers a unique and lasting opportunity to reoccupy the centre ground of innovative, high-quality, high-value recycling of end-of-life plastics.” 

The event will also feature presentations on innovative techniques in plastics recycling and other best practice.

’Recycling the Unrecyclable’ is on 23 November at the Wesley Hotel near London Euston station.

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