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Call to Ban Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Challenged

Over 150 organizations and individuals, including food and beverage companies, chemical companies, industry associations, and members of the European Parliament, released a statement earlier this month calling for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging until further research and testing can be done. The term oxo-degradable plastics, in general, refers to conventional plastic that contains chemical additives intended to accelerate the degradation of the material under the action of UV light and/or heat, and oxygen. More specifically, the statement recommends applying the precautionary principle with respect to oxo-degradable plastic packaging “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.”

The statement, which was prepared by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate transition to a circular economy, argues that oxo-degradable plastics are not a solution to plastic packaging pollution and suggests that one of the concerns with these materials is their suitability for effective long-term reuse, recycling, or composting. The statement also asserted that oxo-degradable plastic may breakdown into small pieces, including microplastics, which can accumulate and potentially harm human health and the environment.

A few days after the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s statement was released, the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association (OBPA) responded with a statement titled, “Oxo-Bio Technology Reduces Plastic Waste in the Environment.” The association quoted a European Commission (EC) report on oxo-biodegradable plastics, which stated, “The debate around the biodegradability of [OBP] plastic is not finalised, but should move forward from the assertion that it merely fragments, towards confirming whether the timeframes observed for total biodegradation are acceptable from an environmental point of view and whether this is likely to take place in natural environments.” OBPA added that it is helping the EC answer these questions.

OBPA points out that some of the organizations that signed the call to ban oxo-degradable plastics are promoting rival technologies. The association also suggests that more microplastic comes from conventional plastics items than from oxo-biodegradable plastic.