EU Restriction on Oxo-degradable Plastics

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Microplastics are defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as plastic particles smaller than 5mm. The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) further describe microplastics as being resistant to biodegradation and consequently, having a tendency to accumulate in the (marine) environment. ECHA is concerned that safe thresholds for microplastics have yet to be determined, that the level of microplastics may accumulate progressively over time, and that the presence of microplastics in the aquatic environment could theoretically affect organisms in the ecosystem (though conclusive scientific evidence for this is absent).

Microplastic particles are intentionally added to various products (i.e. primary microplastics), including cosmetics, clothing, detergents, medical, agricultural and horticultural products. ECHA has proposed a restriction on the use of intentionally added microplastic particles to any consumer or professional-use product, though this restriction has not been adopted as law. Another potential source is from the degradation of larger plastic material (i.e. secondary microplastics).

Oxo-biodegradable plastics, such TDPA™ plastics, undergo both degradation and biodegradation in the open environment. Upon completion of biodegradation, TDPA™ plastics do not accumulate micro-plastics, instead forming carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

It is understood that ECHA had not found evidence of micro-plastics formation from oxo-degradable plastics when their study was prematurely terminated. Moreover, a 2017 report commissioned by the ECHA acknowledged that “the debate … should move forward from the assertion that [oxo-biodegradable] plastics merely fragment”.

The restriction of ‘oxo-degradable’ plastics by Article 5 of the EU Directive 2019/904 was hastily introduced, and contravened due process (i.e. REACH Regulation 2006/1907). Indeed, it is not based on scientific evidence since a study of the environmental impact of oxo-degradable plastics by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) was prematurely terminated prior to a report being published.

The EU claim that oxo-biodegradable plastics, such as TDPA™ plastic, form microplastics, despite evidence to the contrary. This irrationality is further compounded by the fact that microplastic particles continue to be intentionally added to various products including cosmetics, clothing, detergents, medical, agricultural and horticultural products, yet there is still no EU ban on intentionally added microplastic particles.

If the ban of ‘oxo-degradable’ plastics was not on scientific grounds, what was the true reason? The ban is perhaps, politically motivated and aimed at eliminating competition from the oxo-biodegradable plastics industry, in order to protect the bioplastics industry, which is dominated by large multi-national corporations with significant lobbying power.

The bioplastics industry has considerable history in this regard, and has been targeting oxo-biodegradable plastics for more than a decade by spreading misinformation to discredit oxo-biodegradable plastics technology. This sustained misinformation campaign is exemplified by the 2009 publication by the European Bioplastics Association, which proudly trumpeted “Fighting Oxos – European Bioplastics Position on Oxo-Fragmentable Products”.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics technology is certainly a thorn in the side of the bioplastics industry as it is the most economical route to achieving plastics biodegradation – bioplastics resins are significantly more expensive than conventional plastic resins. Bioplastics have been in development for several decades, with major investment from multinational corporations who want a return on their investment. In this regard, the sustained misinformation campaign by the bioplastics industry is understandable as these corporations do not want to see commercial interests derailed by a competing technology that is not only practical but also affordable.

The bioplastics industry frequently misrepresents oxo-biodegradable technology as ‘oxo-degradable’, implying that they only fragment rather than biodegrade, because they do not meet the composting standards, ASTM D6400 and EN13432 (which they use as surrogate standards for biodegradation). Conveniently omitted is the fact that these composting standards are only relevant to industrial composting conditions, with controlled temperature, oxygen and humidity conditions. (Indeed, outside of industrial composting conditions, compostable plastics also do not meet the criteria for biodegradation.)

Nevertheless, TDPA™ is supported by independent, academic scientific research demonstrating that the degradation products of oxo-biodegradable plastic are bio-assimilated by microorganisms; this research has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Furthermore, a 2017 report commissioned by the ECHA acknowledged that “the debate … should move forward from the assertion that [oxo-biodegradable] plastics merely fragment”.

Upon completion of biodegradation in the open environment, oxo-biodegradable plastics, such as TDPA™ plastic, do not accumulate micro-plastics, instead biodegrading into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

Emeritus Professor Emo Chiellini, a scientist internationally-renowned for his expertise in polymer stabilization and degradation, has comprehensively reviewed the scientific evidence and has concluded that oxo-biodegradable plastics, such as TDPA™ plastics, do not form microplastics. Instead, he also points out that conventional plastics, which disintegrate into fragments but display negligible biodegradability, is a significant source of microplastics.

Through EU Directive 2019/904 Article 5, there is a restriction on products made from oxo-degadable plasticcs being placed on the market in the EU. Although oxo-biodegradable plastics are fundamentally different by virtue of their ability to biodegrade, they are nevertheless included in the blanket restriction.

A case (T-745/20) challenging the lawfulness of the Article 5 ban of oxo-degradable plastics has recently been heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the verdict is eagerly awaited. Nevertheless, in the interim, EPI strongly advises that all manufacturers, distributers and retailers who are selling or planning to sell products with TDPA™ in the EU to become familiar with, and abide by the Directive, including Article 5.