Plastics: should they get the oxo treatment?

The bioplastics and compostable plastics industry are wary of oxo-biodegradable plastics (OBPs). Late last year, Belgium-based EuPC sought a Europe-wide ban on oxo-fragmentable plastics following the results of several independent tests conducted on degradable and fragmentable plastics materials and their effect on the quality of recycling. EuPC recommended that a separate collection of degradable plastics is necessary to ensure “resource efficiency” in Europe’s recycling streams.

The Roediger Agencies conducted tests on oxo-biodegradable plastic bags and found that "that plastic products made with oxo-biodegradable technology may be recycled without any significant detriment to the newly formed recycled product.”

Supporting OBPs are associations such as the London-headquartered Oxo-biodegradable Plastic Association (OPA) and the US-based Oxo Alliance plus UK-based oxo-additive/masterbatch maker Symphony Environmental Technologies. All are of the opinion that OBPs have been misunderstood.

Symphony CEO Michael Laurier says, “OBPs are made from petroleum-derived polymers such as PE, PP and PS, containing extra ingredients, and designed according to ASTM D6954 to degrade and biodegrade in the open environment leaving no harmful residues. He continues, “The technology is upgrading, not replacing, a proven range of conventional plastic products.” Symphony produces the d2w additive, which is added to plastics at a level of 1%.

Laurier explained that OBPs will degrade by a process of oxidation until they become biodegradable. “At that point they are NOT plastics and they are then biodegraded by naturally occurring micro-organisms. The process is unstoppable so long as oxygen is present,” he stressed, adding that OBPs do not just fragment but will be consumed by bacteria and fungi after oxidative cleavage has reduced the molecular structure to a level that permits living micro-organisms access to the carbon and hydrogen. In this sense, the material is "biodegradable." This process continues until the material has biodegraded to nothing more than CO2, water, and humus, he says.

Debunking the fallacy that OBPs contain heavy metals, Laurier says the active ingredients in OBP additives, which cause the oxidation, are salts. “These salts are required as trace-elements in the human diet. Further, they are at such low concentrations that they are unlikely in any event to be toxic to the environment and this is confirmed by research commissioned by the UK government (2012 study commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to the Loughborough University).

Bioplastics, being bio-based, are connoted to quickly degrade, and thus deemed to pursue a bright future. A recent study by Freedonia indicates that global demand for bio-based plastics will increase 19% a year to 960,000 tonnes in 2017, with starch-based resins and polylactic acid (PLA) as the leading products.

Petroleum-based plastics are becoming synonymous with waste – partly due to either misinformation or hype. Nonetheless, this adds prestige to bioplastics, regardless if the latter is reputed to engender a shortage of food supply for human consumption.

Bioplastics are biodegradable - but only in an industrial composting environment, not in the open, a premise emphasised by the European Bioplastics in its 2009 position paper on OBPs. Referring to the statement made in the European Bioplastics paper that “fragmentation is not the same as biodegradation”, Laurier agrees that fragmentation differs from biodegradation, but explains that a majority of non-scientific literatures describe only the first or oxidative degradation phase undergone by OBPs. “These descriptions should not be used for plastic, which degrades by the process of oxo-biodegradation defined by CEN and the correct description is oxo-biodegradable, “ he says.

Hinting at a stiff competition brewing between OBPs and bioplastics, Laurier observes that compostable bioplastics proponents disseminate inaccurate information to undermine oxo-biodegradables. “The bioplastics industry seems to be spending millions of dollars on campaigns to disparage OBPs, but it is unlikely that they are spending this money as a free public information service. Rather, it seems that they have realised that they have chosen the wrong technology, which cannot compete with oxo-biodegrables on its merits in the market place. They have therefore turned to lobbyists and PR firms to try to persuade the world not to buy oxo-biodegradables, by making statements which they know perfectly well are untrue – for example that oxo-biodegrable contains “heavy metals” or that it fragments but does not biodegrade,” he commented.

He says that organisations such as the European Bioplastics (a body that has been formed by the bioplastics industry to counter oxo-biodegradables, according to Laurier), the Biodegradable Products Institute and the SPI Bioplastics Council acted as lobby groups for the bioplastic industry.

“Some misleading statements come from the recycling industry, mostly because they have confused oxo-bio with bio-based compostable plastics, or are not aware that oxo technology does not apply to PET bottles,” he says.

Laurier does paint a brighter future and says that while anti-oxo biodegradable advocates are driven by commercial imperatives, the other side (pro-oxos) will continue to produce independent scientific evidence to prove them wrong. “We are winning, as already most of them have stopped making some of their more ridiculous allegations and perhaps their campaigns will stop when they have decided to abandon bio-based plastics,” he explains.


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