Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Federation: A new voice in an old debate

February 09, 2016

A group of European and American manufacturers of ‘oxo-biodegradable’ plastics have come together to form the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Federation (OBPF). The new federation officially launched on February 1, 2016, and seeks to promote what it describes in the announcement as “the appropriate use of oxo-biodegradable products through participation in the development of standards, regulations, material guides and positive community interaction.”

Image courtsey J-Trend Systems.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics, or oxo-degradable plastics, as those who do not support the use of the technology prefer to call them, have come under considerable fire over the past few years. The reason for this is the widespread doubt that has arisen about the actual effectiveness of the technology. Does biodegradation actually occur with the use of this additive technology, or not?

It doesn’t, wrote the SPI (Washington, DC) in its 2013 position paper on the subject. The terms (i.e., “degradable,” “oxo-degradable,” “oxo-biodegradable,” “oxo-green” and “landfill degradable”) suggest that the products can undergo rapid degradation and biodegradation under many different end-of-life conditions. But, said the SPI, the main effect of oxidation is fragmentation, not biodegradation.

“Fragmentation of “degradable additives” for plastics is not the result of a biodegradation process but rather the result of a chemical reaction. The resulting fragments will remain in the environment. Fragmentation is not a solution to the waste problem, but rather the conversion of visible contaminants, such as bags, cutlery and packaging into invisible contaminants.”

Studies performed by, among others, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI; New York) and, just last year, by Michigan State University have also failed to demonstrate that the use of the technology leads to actual biodegradation.

In addition, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that unqualified biodegradable claims are acceptable only if they have scientific evidence that their product will completely decompose within a reasonably short period of time under customary methods of disposal. Moreover, the FTC continued: “unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.”
And the U.S. National Advertising Division (NAD; New York) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has recommended that advertisers discontinue claims such as “100% oxo-biodegradable” because such statements incorrectly suggest that a plastic will quickly or completely biodegrade with the help of these additives. Both the NAD and FTC have taken action against companies using the additive technology for “oxo-biodegradables” and using the word “biodegradable” for marketing purposes for making false and unsubstantiated claims.

It is against this backdrop that the new federation has been formed, with, as its founding members declared, the intention to help educate and further public awareness of oxo-biodegradable products “as an available alternative to existing products and to promote the use of these products without any anti-competitive activities in relation to other relevant industry and academic associations.” They have at least adopted a less truculent tone compared to the messages that issue from the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association, the UK-based trade organization, which claims to represent the interests of 1,602 manufacturers, distributors, importers, exporters and commercial end-users of oxo-biodegradable products.

Yet, what strikes me—over and above the whole discussion of whether biodegradation occurs after fragmentation, or not—is the sheer wastefulness of the technology. And, yes, the extremely old-fashioned, outdated way of thinking; a mindset that belongs to a linear economy, where ‘make, use, and dispose’ is the norm.

Oxo-(bio)degradable plastics are made using valuable, non-renewable resources, and, while they may or may not be recyclable (many think not), they are mainly marketed as a solution for litter. Programmed for disintegration, plastic litter simply disappears from sight, and with it, the residual value of the plastic itself.

Surely we can, and must, do better than that?

Just two weeks ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a report on the New Plastics Economy offering a new vision for plastic packaging and plastics in general. The report pointed out ways that eliminating plastics packaging waste could be accomplished, one very important of which was by increasing the “economics, quality and uptake of recycling.”

The New Plastics Economy envisages a circular approach based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics, drastically reducing leakage of all plastics into natural systems, and, importantly, decoupling plastics from non-renewable fossil feedstocks, to reduce the greenhouse gas impact of plastics products.
This report is in tune with the times: the circular economy is a concept that is taking hold in industries across the board, promising economic and environmental gains for those who can and are willing to adapt.

Frankly, that’s not something I see the members of the new OBPF doing anytime soon.


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