Are efforts to create biodegradable plastic packaging missing the point about sustainability?

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
The jury's still out when it comes to biodegradable plastic
You are so right that we should be alarmed. Industry has an ignominious track-record of ...

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Recently, I came across a video promoting Gone, an “eco-friendly” solution for runners and cyclists: an energy gel encased in plant-based bioplastics that will “biodegrade in a matter of days”.

The 36-second clip shows how to use the new product: cyclist eats gel; cyclist drops the packaging on the road; cyclist smiles. I watched it a few times, not quite believing what I was seeing. Had the advert really encouraged us to litter?

“It’s perfectly possible to develop packaging that is beneficial to nature – for example, once you are finished with your chocolate bar you can then ‘donate’ nutrients to the soil via the biodegradable wrapper,” says Juan Bakker, project manager for Germany-based environmental consultancy EPEA. The big challenge, however, “is communicating what does and doesn’t biodegrade”.

Other brands have tried to be more careful when presenting their biodegradable breakthroughs. Take Novamont, which recently confirmed that bags made from its Mater-Bi bioplastics are fully marine biodegradable in four to 12 months (traditional polyethylene bags remained intact).

Novamont was at pains to explain that this biodegradability has benefits but is no excuse for bad behaviour: this biodegradability can “mitigate ecological risk”, explained Francesco Degli Innocenti, the manufacturer’s director of ecology of products and environmental communication, but “must not become a commercial message”.

Fine words, but perhaps paradoxical given they were part of a press release issued at a press conference to unveil the results. There are big bucks to be made in biodegradability, after all.

Too good to be true?

Another firm in the race is Polymateria, which is looking to deal with what it calls “fugitive plastic”. “[We are] focused on biodegradation, so when someone litters, or there’s a problem in a recycling facility, or a fox knocks over a bin, our technology can still remove these plastics from the environment,” explained CEO Niall Dunne recently.

The firm has won funding of around £1m through innovate UK to help develop its “biotransformation” technology, which offers time-controlled “full biodegradation” of traditional plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene. The products are still recyclable as usual, but break down if they escape the circular economy and, so the firm claims, leave no trace of microplastics.

However, big questions remain. When do these plastics start breaking down and how long do they take to disappear? Some clarity amid all the confusion would be welcome – the Foodservice Packaging Association has already called for a ban on the term ‘biodegradable’ when referencing packaging.

That it is used interchangeably with ‘compostable’, for which there is a recognised European standard (EN13432), doesn’t help. The definition of biodegradability also changes at the whim of the producer, leaving businesses baffled and consumers confused.

Polymateria is therefore working with the likes of the British Standards Institution to set a new standard for biodegradable plastics. This is also the subject of a call for evidence from the UK government: “Standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics.” It’s a hugely complicated topic with different stages of degradation that happen at different speeds depending on the material and the conditions – a hedge versus an industrial composting facility versus the sea, for example.

A review of the current evidence, published by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre alongside the call for evidence, concluded that “further clarification as to what plastics are truly biodegradable, under what conditions” is needed.

The current testing methodologies, for example, have the potential to incentivise manufacturers to develop ‘biodegradable plastics’ which perform well in biodegradability tests, but then do not degrade appropriately when in the natural environment, the experts noted. This also came to light when Defra looked at biodegradable bags – research it committed to as part of the 5p carrier bag charge.

However, read the marketing messages of some of the companies involved in producing these bags and you get the impression that they have cracked this (or are happy for shoppers to believe they have). The Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association has been particularly vocal in the face of a regulatory backlash against the technology in Europe.

For and against

The criticism has been unfair, according to Michael Stephen, OPA chairman and deputy chairman of Symphony Environmental Technologies, which produces the d2w plastic additive. At a Westminster Forum in July he defended the technology: it doesn’t “just break up into tiny pieces” (that is microplastics) and there is solid scientific evidence that it “does become biodegradable much more quickly than ordinary plastic and does confer a significant environmental benefit”.

Some countries have bought this line – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are all working on mandatory use of oxo-bios for some packaging. Saudi Arabia, for example, started with bags and seems keen to expand the rules further to cover flow wraps, sweet wrappers, table and other types of film. This has frustrated recyclers (who say the materials muck up their systems, producing flawed recyclables) and enraged environmentalists.

Indeed, in Europe, moves are afoot to ban the use of oxo-degradable plastics under the Single-Use Plastics directive. A report from the European Commission in January 2018 was particularly damning. The Commission didn’t dispute that oxo-degradable plastic may degrade quicker in the open environment than conventional plastic.

However, “claims presenting oxo-degradable plastic as an ‘oxo-biodegradable’ solution to littering which has no negative impact on the environment, in particular by not leaving any fragments of plastic or toxic residues behind, are not substantiated by evidence”. In other words: these products could be the quickest route to microplastic pollution.

Once again, timing was everything: biodegradable plastics as a means to avoid pollution only make sense if this happens within a “reasonable” time frame, the Commission said. This is where the OPA’s arguments, like their products, begin to fall apart.

The OPA, in its literature and emails to RWW, talks about oxo-biodegradable plastics being recycled back into nature in “two to three years”, but nothing more specific. There was also little to assuage fears that, as the Commission has suggested, the fragmented plastics won’t fully biodegrade.

The UK government hasn’t completely closed the door though. In its call for evidence, it has asked for details of tests that can prove biodegradable plastics, including oxo-biodegradables, can completely degrade (that is, break down into just water, biomass and gases such as carbon dioxide and methane). It also wonders what the minimum timeframes for the process should be and the impacts of any type of biodegradable plastic on recycling and composting systems.

The responses are likely to be lengthy, contradictory and controversial, so the government would be wise to take its time. Defra currently appears cautious about some of the new technology emerging in the biodegradable packaging space, but other departments seem to have a more gung-ho attitude.

The jury’s out

The Bioeconomy Strategy, published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in December 2018, talks up the role of biodegradable packaging in reducing plastic waste and pollution.

Funding has just been announced for projects including a “natural” single-use water bottle that can “biodegrade completely in a matter of months”. Check out the company’s website and the focus is on how this bottle performs if it’s littered rather than in closed-loop recycling systems – the metal cap, for example “rusts down in the environment into naturally occurring minerals”.

Speaking to Sky News about the funding, the business minister Lord Duncan said: "We've seen the ocean is full of plastic so what we want to make sure is it's biodegradable... whatever we're using is decaying gently into the soil and returning to nature.” The position some in government seem keen to take is: if it’s biodegradable then we don’t have to bother about tackling litter at home or worry about our packaging that’s shipped abroad to countries that can’t deal with it.

Even the 2018 Foresight Future of the Sea report by the government’s chief scientific officer put “introducing new biodegradable plastics” among the major responses to reducing plastic pollution the sea. There was no evidence listed to back this up.

“I do worry about the speed the government is going on some of this,” says Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at think-tank Green Alliance. Creating packaging that is ‘marine safe’ or ‘safe to litter’ makes others uneasy too – even if, as the likes of Polymateria are claiming for their process, there are “absolutely no microplastics whatsoever” left over.

Hoping littered packaging will biodegrade, if it happens to find itself in our environment, is a “shot in the dark”, Keep Britain Tidy chief executive Allison Ogden-Newton tells RWW. “We need to reduce the amount of packaging that is produced and ensure that all packaging is recyclable and recycled and, of course, stop littering.”

Indeed, amid all these claims, counterclaims and (public) cash for magic ingredients or technology, are we forgetting the goal here: that is, a system and a society that values resources rather than just chucking them on the road?

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You are so right that we should be alarmed. Industry has an ignominious track-record of environmental responsibility. The words 'sustainable', 'biodegradable' and 'eco-friendly' are not widely properly understood and often selectively defined. As you point out, what is 'reasonable time'? Irrespective of the visual pollution, there can still be devastating wildlife effects in the short term. Plastic bags that break down are still of no help to the whales mistake them for jellyfish and thus still die of dehydration. The breakdown period being reduced to weeks or even days is of no comfort to the turtle whose oesophagus is blocked by one. And the packaging industry is not only making ridiculous promises over 'new' plastics; replacements can be little better. Replacing the plastic rings that bind drinks cans into four-packs can be replaced by strong wood-pulp-based rings. They will break down in a few months, which is no comfort to the dolphin whose beak is locked shut by one. So the idea that littering can ever be acceptable is, as you suggest, one of the greatest lies.

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