The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative has published a statement calling for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging, as evidence emerges linking the material to the mounting microplastics problem.
Oxo-degradable plastic packaging is often pitched as a solution to plastic pollution, with the claim that such plastics degrade into harmless residues within a period ranging from a few months to several years. However, a growing body of evidence indicates that oxo-degradable plastics actually fragment into tiny pieces of plastic and contribute to microplastic pollution instead of degrading into harmless residues.
“The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution. In addition, these materials are not suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting, meaning they cannot be part of a circular economy,” said Rob Opsomer, Lead for Systemic Initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
In total, over 150 businesses, NGOs, scientists, industry associations and more — including Marks and Spencer, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia, British Plastics Federation, Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association, Packaging South Africa, WWF, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and 10 members of the European Parliament — have endorsed the statement calling for a global ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging “until extensive, independent and third-party research and testing based on international standards (as used by ISO, CEN and ASTM), possibly combined with technological progress and innovation, clearly confirms sufficient biodegradation of the plastic fragments in different environments, and over a time-scale short enough for particles not to accumulate in ecosystems.”
“Using oxo-degradable additives is not a solution for litter. Their use in waste management systems will likely cause negative outcomes for the environment and communities,” said Erin Simon, Director of Sustainability Research and Development at the World Wildlife Fund. “When public policy supports the cascading use of materials — systems where materials get reused over and over, this strengthens economies and drives the development of smarter materials management systems. This leads to wins for both the environment and society.”
As a result of the concerns raised about the potential negative impacts of plastic fragments from oxo-degradable plastics, an increasing number of companies and governments, particularly in Europe, have begun taking action to restrict their use. In the UK, retailers such as Tesco and the Co-operative have eliminated oxo-degradable plastics from their carrier bags. France banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics altogether in 2015.
Despite some progress, oxo-degradable plastics are still produced in many European countries, including the UK, and marketed across the world as safely biodegradable. Several countries in the Middle East and Africa, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, some areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Ghana and Togo, are still promoting the use of oxo-degradable plastics or have even made their use mandatory.
To establish a plastics system grounded in circularity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, together with the signatories, supports innovation that eliminates waste and pollution during the design phase and keeps products and materials in high-value use.