Why is it that so many of the sustainability advocates believe the only answer to plastic in nature is to get rid of the material altogether? After all, as I’ve often said, plastic in the environment is a people problem, not a plastic problem. Yet, plastic bans persist not only in the United States but in Europe, even as more solutions are developed to deal with the perceived problem of plastics.
In response to the European Commission’s report on the impact of oxo-degradable plastics on the environment, members of the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Federation (OBPF), whose board comprises international experts in this field—Add-X Biotech, Sweden; EKM Developments, Germany; Environmental Products Inc. (EPI), Canada; Wells Plastics Ltd, UK; and Willow Ridge Plastics Inc. (Erlanger, KY)—collaborated to write a response challenging the information the European Commission (EC) produced.
“In the plastic market there are a lot of developments being pursued to find solutions to the growing problem of plastic ending up in nature,” said the OBPF in its response. “There is not one singularly perfect solution to this problem, but many options. This is why it is folly to try and regulate every industry or every product under one set of guidelines. Instead, we should be trying to determine the best solutions for each case and figuring out how to be environmentally responsible while being thoughtful of regional economic abilities and industrial needs.”
The OBPF noted in its critical review of the EC report that it was written “from a negatively pre-judged position by referring to [the oxo-biodegradable] materials as ‘so-called oxo-degradable plastic,’” when the report that the EC commissioned and is referred to as underpinning their judgment, concluded that the biodegradation of oxo-biodegradable plastics has been proven beyond doubt.”
The OBPF takes issue with the EC report’s statement that “biopolymers biodegrade quickly both under controlled conditions and in the open environment.”
Dr. Gary Ogden, Technical Manager at Wells Plastics Ltd. (Staffordshire, UK) and Chairman of the OBPF, told PlasticsToday, “apart from that statement being completely wrong—no, they don’t biodegrade quickly—the EC document talks about ‘timeframes’ but never sets what an acceptable timeframe is.”
In response to this statement, the OBPF states: “Bio-based polymers do not have the same properties as conventional plastics in some key areas relating to oxygen and water barrier properties—important for food preservation. Biopolymers do not biodegrade quickly in the open environment as they are designed to biodegrade in the synthetic conditions (i.e., 58°C, high moisture and high pH as per European Norm 13432 or the U.S. equivalent, ASTM D6400). One of the most common biopolymers, polylactic acid (PLA) is very stable in ambient conditions and is typically used in biopolymer compounds to slow down the rate of biodegradation at the conditions found in the industrial composting environment.”
The OBPF notes in its rebuttal to the EC report, negating the validity of oxo-biodegradation, that the “oxidative degradation of plastics has been recognized and the mechanisms understood ever since the development of plastic several decades ago. The use of anti-oxidant additives to stabilize plastics from the effects of UV and heat is a common and necessary practice and are manufactured globally by many large chemical companies (such as BASF, an EU-based company).
“This oxidative degradation, as with most chemical reactions, can be accelerated by certain additives, hence oxo-biodegradable additives do not cause the fragmentation of plastics into smaller pieces of plastic, but for the conventional plastics to change both chemically (introducing oxygen into the molecule) and structurally (reducing the average molecular weight of the polymer, as is required for all large carbon-based molecules, including wood and biopolymers) to enable biodegradation to take place by microbial action.”
It is evident that the authors of the EC report “demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding” of plastics generally, and of biodegradability in the open environment and in landfills, and composting methods and requirements,” notes the OBPF. The OBPF rebuttal also challenges the EC’s section on biodegradation in the marine environment, and the conclusion that biodegradation would be “much slower than in land-based open environments,” hence much more damage would be caused because oxo-biodegradation would not take place in a “reasonable time.”