Symphony: UK Government is Right About Plastic Bags

Symphony submitted written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the UK Parliament and has analysed their report published on 6th February 2014. Symphony’s conclusion is that the Government is right to propose favourable treatment for biodegradable plastic when it introduces a 5p charge for plastic shopping bags in 2015. The EAC has shown insufficient cause for its opposition to such treatment.

The EAC failed to recognise that a substantial number of bags will still be used by shoppers, because they are immensely useful, and are the most effective way to carry shopping and protect it from contamination. These bags are also used many times for a variety of purposes, and are not “single-use” bags. Some of these will escape into the environment on land or sea, from which they cannot realistically be collected, and they could lie or float around for decades. The EAC has proposed no solution to this problem. Obviously if they are not collected they cannot be recycled.

Already the governments of nine countries, with a combined population of 195 millions have addressed this problem and have carefully considered the effectiveness and safety of oxo-biodegradable technology before making it mandatory to use the technology. They rejected the bio-based alternative. British factories and retailers cannot now export to those countries unless their disposable plastic products and packaging are made with oxo-biodegradable technology.

The British Government was right to recognise the problem and has proposed to encourage biodegradable technology for the bags which remain despite the 5p charge. The DEFRA Minister, Dan Rogerson, told the Committee that the purpose of the propose exemption was “so that where bags are used, they are better by being biodegradable, rather than simply single-use plastic bags.”

The Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA) has suggested the 5p charge for an IDEAL BAG (an oxo-bio bag with 40% recycled content) and 10p charge for a bag made from old-fashioned non degradable plastic.

It needs to be clearly understood that there are two very different types of biodegradable plastic bags:

a. “Compostable” - (also loosely known as “bio-based plastics” or “bioplastics”) and designed according to EN13432 to biodegrade in the special conditions found in industrial composting, and
b. Oxo-biodegradable - made from petroleum-derived polymers such as PE and PP, containing extra ingredients (which do not include “heavy-
metals”) designed to degrade and biodegrade in the open environment leaving no harmful residues.

The Minister continued “we have to be sure that we have got the criteria right on those.”

Symphony agrees, and has advised DEFRA that oxo-biodegradable technology would be suitable for dealing with the litter problem which the government has identified. There would be no point in an exemption for bio-based compostable plastics, for the 8 reasons given at para 25 of the written evidence given to the EAC by the OPA – not least because they are tested to biodegrade not in the open environment but in the special conditions found in an industrial composting unit, and they cannot be recycled with conventional plastic

A Consortium consisting of Europackaging, Symphony Environmental, and Nottingham University submitted a proposal to DEFRA for work to assist them to get the criteria right. Euro Packaging have extensive expertise in blown-film extrusion, with an annual capacity of circa 100,000 tonnes, and currently supply carriers into the UK’s major grocery retailers. They have experience of working with biodegradable technologies. They have on-site recycling capabilities, and a vast know-how of the implementation of recycled materials into flexible film products.

They said in the tender “Through a partnership with Symphony Environmental Technologies, Euro Packaging intend to utilise the d2w additive as an environmentally responsible solution for vest carrier manufacture. ... Oxo-biodegradable products have successfully overcome the commercial obstacle often associated with added value films due to their additive based application, and their compatibility with polyethylene has enabled carrier bag manufacture with uncompromised mechanical performance. …The addition of oxo-biodegradable technology enhances the overall environmental impact. .. At the end of its useful life the bag can be collected and recycled along with conventional plastic packaging waste. However, if the bag escapes this path and becomes litter- the oxo-biodegradable technology will allow a rapid and harmless bioassimilation of the waste material…..”

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is tested according to US (ASTM D6954), or British (BS8472) Standards or the French (AFNOR ACT51-808) to prove that it does degrade and biodegrade, that it is not eco-toxic and that it does not contain significant amounts of gel which might inhibit biodegradability.

Oxo-biodegradation of polymers has been studied in depth in very many scientific publications - most recently at the Technical Research Institute of Sweden and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. A peer-reviewed report of the work was published in Vol. 96 of the journal of Polymer Degradation & Stability (2011) at pages 919-928. It shows 91% biodegradation in a soil environment within 24 months in tests performed according to ISO 17556 . Eminent scientists in France , Italy , and Spain have also verified biodegradability.

A Life Cycle Analysis conducted by Intertek for the UK Environment Agency in 2011 showed that plastic shopping bags have better environmental credentials than paper, cotton or bio-based plastic. A further LCA by Intertek in 2012 showed that oxo-biodegradable plastic has the best environmental credentials of all the materials studied.

With regard to recycling, the EAC has not understood the scientific evidence, and has attached undue weight to fears expressed by the recyclers who gave evidence. Symphony agrees with the recyclers that bio-based “compostable” plastic cannot be recycled with conventional plastic, and that it should not therefore be encouraged for plastic shopping bags (see the Austrian TCKT report of Nov 2013 commissioned by EuPC). However, this is not the case with oxo-biodegradable plastics, for the reasons given in Roediger laboratories report of 2012, and their supplementary report of 2013, having reviewed the TCKT report.

Symphony’s experience is entirely consistent with the Roediger report, that oxo-bio can be safely recycled, and the recyclers presented the Committee with no technical evidence and no experience to the contrary. Not one of them was able to say that they had recycled oxo-biodegradable plastic and had encountered any problems. The Roediger report deals with the question of long-life products such as damp-proof membranes and concludes that they do not present a problem.

Symphony’s CEO Michael Laurier said “In the last two years Symphony have sold enough d2w masterbatch to make 300,000 tons of oxo-biodegradable plastic products, and we estimate that other suppliers sold at least the same amount, making a total of more than 600,000 tons. We know that oxo-biodegradable plastic products have been successfully recycled for the past 10 years by customers of ours around the world. In the UK until recently Tesco’s carrier bags were oxo-biodegradable, and that they were successfully recycled in the UK. In those ten years we have heard no reports of any difficulty encountered.”

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