Opinion: Unlooked-for fallout from Brexit

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After a period of relative quiet on the oxo-degradable plastics front, there have been recent signs that, in the UK at least, a new campaign is underway to sell these plastics to the British public as the ultimate solution to plastic pollution.

While Europe and the European Union have been notoriously hard to convince of the advantages of oxo-degradable plastic, this has not been the case for the UK – partly due to the fact that one of the more vociferous producers of oxo-degradable additive solutions is a company called Symphony Environmental Technologies, based in Borehamwood near London.

Last November, together with over 150 organisations, the European association of plastics converters - EuPC - issued a statement in support of the ban called for by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative on oxo-degradable plastic packaging.

Why a ban? Among other reasons:

  • Oxo-degradable plastics are designed to start fragmenting within a few months
  • or years. Therefore, even though the addition of stabilisers can delay the intended fragmentation effect, oxo-degradable plastic packaging is - by its very design - not meant for long-term reusable applications.
  • Oxo-degradable plastics are being produced and sold in many countries, with society being led to believe they safely biodegrade in nature.
  • Yet significant evidence suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not safely biodegrade but fragment into small pieces, contributing to microplastics pollution and posing a hazard to marine and other wildlife.

As the statement summarised: “the evidence to date suggests that oxo-degradable plastic packaging goes against two core principles of the circular economy: designing out waste and pollution; and keeping products and materials in high-value use.”

Nonetheless, with a potential Brexit on the horizon, the UK oxo-degradable plastics lobby is seizing the day. Two days ago, Symphony released the results of YouGov survey it had commissioned, revealing that 86% of UK adults would be happy to use oxo-biodegradable plastic instead of their usual plastic. The report, designed to measure the public’s awareness, knowledge and desire to take action against plastic pollution, surveyed a representative sample of 2,107 people across the UK.

Note that respondents were given the following statement to read before answering the questions "Ordinary plastic (e.g. shopping bags, plastic packaging etc.) can be treated with oxo-biodegradable technology, at little or no extra cost. Oxo-biodegradable plastic looks and performs the same and can be recycled - but if it gets into the open environment as litter, it will break down into natural minerals in the same way as a leaf, only quicker."

Well, hey – doesn’t that sound grand? Who wouldn’t want that?

It’s just such a shame it’s not true – or at least not according to a very impressive body of scientific opinion on the subject.

Led by lobbies, ignorance and short-term thinking, we’ve made environmental choices in the past that have had disastrous results. Let’s try to do it right this time and keep oxo-degradable plastics out of the environment – everywhere.

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