European Bioplastics distances itself from “oxo-biodegradable” industry

By in Smart Packaging on July 21, 2009

European Bioplastics today published a position paper distancing itself from the so-called "oxo-biodegradable” industry. The paper sheds some light on the technology behind the so-called "oxo-biodegradable" industry, its failure to live up to international established and acknowledged standards that effectively substantiate claims on biodegradation and compostability, and the implications resulting from the different approaches.

"Bioplastics are still a relatively young industry,” says Andy Sweetman, Chairman of the Board of European Bioplastics. "Inherent implications made on the environmental suitability of our products are subject to close scrutiny by all kinds of stakeholders. It is, therefore, vital that claims on biodegradability or compostability are backed by internationally accepted standards,” he adds.

"We just cannot allow that the public, who are generally very sensitive to ecological issues, be further confused by claims on biodegradability and compostability resulting from conflicting approaches. If certain products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable are proven not to fulfill acknowledged standards, this is liable to impact negatively on our own members’ products, even though they do fully comply,” Sweetman further states. It should, under all circumstances, be avoided that products carrying the compostability mark of European Bioplastics, the seedling, be associated in any way with so-called ”oxo-biodegradable” products and the like.

Products carrying the seedling have undergone rigorous independent testing beforehand. Only if proven to comply with the strict standards on biodegradability or compostability, such as ISO 17088, EN 13432 or other similar standards, can the tested material or product be awarded the seedling.

"This is also why we so vigorously fought against the attempt of the 'oxo-biodegradable' industry to water-down the criteria of the EN 13432, requesting longer timeframes for materials to decompose. It would not have been in the public or the composting industry’s interest to have compromised the strict criteria of EN 13432 which ensures the materials are fit for purpose,” the chairman adds. "Fortunately, our position is fully shared by the experts of the plastic and packaging sectors, as was evident during the last meeting of the relevant Working Group of The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) on July 9, 2009, where the requests for revision of the standard were rejected."

Source: European Bioplastics

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"European Bioplastics" is the lobby for hydro-biodegradable or "compostable" plastics. It is not surprising that they are attacking oxo-biodegradable, which is a much superior product and a strong competitor for their market-share. 2) It dismisses oxo-bio plastics because it says “it cannot be verified due to an absence of a standard specification”. In fact, the Standard by which oxobiodegradable plastic can be tested for (a) degradability (b) biodegradability and (c) non eco-toxicity is the American Standard ASTM D6954-04. 3) European Bioplastics also says oxo-bio could encourage people to create more litter in the ‘mistaken’ belief it will biodegrade. If people would be encouraged to create more litter by using oxo-biodegradable plastic the same argument applies to the hydro-biodegradable plastic which EP is promoting. However, there is not a shred of evidence that oxo or hydro plastic has encouraged people to litter. Oxo-bio will harmlessly self-destruct if it gets into the open environment. Hydro-bio will not completely degrade unless someone collects it and puts it into a composting facility. 4 ) It asserts that oxo-bio could cause greater pollution as the fragments will accumulate in the environment, inc marine and aquatic habitats. Oxo-bio does not just fragment. The fragments have been proved by scientific tests to biodegrade after the oxo-bio additive has reduced the molecular-weight to 40,000 Daltons or less. It is then no longer a plastic, and biodegrades in the same way as leaves and straw. 5) It also said it “fought against the attempt of the 'oxo-biodegradable' industry to water-down the criteria of the EN 13432, requesting longer timeframes for materials to decompose”. In fact, it fought to prevent the amendment of EN13432 because it has a commercial interest against a European Standard with tests appropriate to oxo-bio. Composting is not the same as biodegradation in the environment - it is an artificial process operated according to a much shorter timescale than the processes of nature. Therefore, Standards such as EN13432, ISO 17088, and their American (ASTM D6400) and Australian (AS 4736-2006) equivalents, designed for compostable plastic, cannot be used for plastic which is designed to biodegrade if it gets into the environment. The hydro-bio industry has consistently lobbied for standards and legislation which give its product an artificial advantage, and has consistently blocked proposals for change. 6) Composting of organic waste makes sense, but compostable plastic does not. It is up to 400% more expensive than ordinary plastic; it is thicker and heavier and requires more trucks to transport it. Recycling with oil-based plastics is impossible; it uses scarce land and water resources to produce the raw material, and substantial amounts of hydro-carbons are burned and CO2 emitted, by the tractors and other machines employed. If buried in landfill, compostable plastic will emit methane (a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2) in anaerobic conditions. It is definitely not a "green" alternative.
It is apparent Bio-Plastics industry is feeling threatened by the advances made by Oxo-Biodegradable plastics and its increasing acceptance all over the world. Therefore, once again this negative campaign against Oxo-Biodegradable plastics is being made by their lobby. European Bio Plastics Board members must be aware of the fact that very soon there will be an International standard "BS 8472' for Oxo-Biodegradable plastics, which will be a 'pass-fail' standard just like EN 13432 is for Bio-Plastics. There has been a standard 'ASTM 6954' for testing methods. Why do they not accept the reality and stop making misleading comments?
It is disappointing to read such an article by Mr Sweetman, which is clearly biased and not up to speed with the current state of play of the oxo-biodegradable industry. Whilst I can only speak for Reverte technology this concept of just breaking into small plastic pieces is naïve. Wells Plastics have built a testing suite in the UK to monitor and characterise degradation in polyolefin systems by the use of pro-degradants. Oxidation, which manifests itself as a physical embrittlement of the material is a chemical transformation where the polymer chain is scissioned and oxygen bound into the new entity usually as a carbonyl group, it lowers in molecular weight and can no longer be considered a polymer, ergo no longer plastic. Once the material reaches a sufficiently low enough molecular weights the it is available for bio-digestion. It is of course the same for a biopolymer, the process differs in the fact that the polymer generally needs to be hydrolysed first then is made available for bio-digestion. Rate of bio-digestion of both systems is to a large extent based on where it is disposed of once the first stage has been successfully completed. Wells has independent data on mineralisation using Reverte in polyolefins, the critical step for converting carbon locked up in the polymer matrix into carbon dioxide. There is no ambiguity or confusion in this, it is clear and scientifically proven. The concept that biodegradability should be defined as conforming to EN13432 is fundamentally flawed as it is a composting specification, relying on artificial conditions of high heat and high humidity, ideal for first stage hydrolysis of biopolymers. The continued attempts by the oxo-biodegradable industry to try and implement BS 8472 is not a watering down of EN13432 it is to provide a test regime which will allow all materials to be measured equally. To suggest that EN 13432 defines that a material is ‘fit for purpose’ is also flawed, if the final destination of the polymer is for industrial composting, I agree that should be the measure. Wells Plastics have never advocated the Reverte technology for composting. However if it falls out side of that then it should be measured as ‘fit for purpose’ by application, that should be the measure. The suggestions that oxobiodegradables are toxic is totally unfounded, again I can only speak for Reverte but we have had extensive work done by third parties and end customers with regards to the safety of these materials, and they are fully approved for food contact applications. The suitability of a material to provide the ‘greenest’ credentials is a complex calculation and many factors have to be taken into account, life cycle analysis (with true boundaries), and weight for weight performance, compatibility or availability for recycling, resources used, running efficencies, etc. It is most certainly not ‘does it come form corn or not’. The same is true for renewable, now much fossil fuel is expended to gain one kilo of biopolymer, would it have been more ‘green’ just have used the by-product of the oil industry to make the polyolefin in the first case? The use of oxo-biodegradables are an excellent solution for applications where the final product may either go back in to the recycling steam, or may find itself littered or land filled.