A new statement was recently released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that proposes banning oxo-degradable plastic packaging worldwide. The statement was endorsed by over 150 organizations around the globe.
The statement put forth by the group said: “In summary, 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.”
With the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and 150 companies around the world working on banning oxo-degradable plastics, the question here is – what are oxo-degradable plastics, and why should we be interested in potentially banning them?
Plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and accumulate in the environment causing irreversible damage to the planet. Oxo-biodegradable plastics were introduced to the market to counter this problem. They are traditional polyolefin plastics such as polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE), which have been modified by adding a small number of additives such as metal salts. In the presence of sunlight (UV), heat, air (oxygen), and mechanical stress, the oxidized plastics will degrade and break down into smaller fragments. These small pieces will biodegrade in the presence of microorganisms and convert in to carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.
However, studies are refuting these claims on two notes: the complete biodegradation of oxo-biodegradable plastics, and the amount of time it takes for complete biodegradation (often the timescales (far) exceed those claimed by the manufacturers). It is stated that the bags actually break down into smaller fragments, including microplastics, not visible to the eye, rather than biodegrade. The contribution of these plastics to microplastic pollution poses an environmental risk, particularly in the ocean.