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To exempt or not to exempt: should the UK 5p charge apply to biodegradable bags?

When the 5p charge on single-use plastic carrier bags takes effect in England in October 2015, the country will have finally caught up with the rest of the UK, in which a similar charge has already been introduced. That much is clear. What is not yet at all clear is whether or not single-use carrier bags made of biodegradable plastic will be exempt from the charge or not. And even more to the point, what kind of biodegradable plastic should be exempt, if there is to be an exemption?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Environment Agency in the UK are reviewing existing standards for biodegradability and will report to Parliament in October 2015 on whether there are suitable standards that could be applied to biodegradable bags for them to be exempted from the 5p charge—to the chagrin of the British Plastics Federation.

According to the BPF, such an exemption "will only act to validate the throwaway society in which we now live and may lead to a rise in littering."

"Over the last three years, the UK has seen the emergence of significant infrastructure to support plastics recycling. This is at a critical stage where it is necessary for these investments to demonstrate profitable growth and to meet the needs of higher overall recycling targets. This policy exemption could undermine these businesses due to the potential for contamination," says BPF.

Not everyone agrees.

Always ready with a response, the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA), who argues that the government is absolutely right to exempt biodegradable bags, has dismissed the arguments of the BPF as "scaremongering."

"The BPF and the recyclers know or ought to know that the characteristics of the different types of biodegradable plastic are not the same. Some are compatible with recycling and some are not."

The OPA went on to emphasize that biobased plastics marketed as 'compostable' are not compatible with recycling, and should obviously not therefore qualify for the exemption. They claim that the only plastic carrier bags, able to biodegrade in the open environment if littered, but also to be recycled into new carrier bags, garbage sacks etc.—and therefore qualifying for the exemption—are those made of what they call "oxo-biodegradable" plastic (often known as oxo-fragmentable plastic, because of the debate about whether it can indeed completely biodegrade or not).

"Scientific evidence has been produced to DEFRA that oxo-biodegradable plastic can be recycled without the need for segregation, but the recyclers have produced only scare stories with no scientific basis."

The UK authorities, however, do not seem wholly convinced.

They fully recognize that there will always be a need for some form of single use bag for impulse buys. But: "For these bags our aim is a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag that meets defined criteria and which can also be identified and separated in waste recovery and treatment operations," they write. "We are not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists."

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