The Problem with “Oxo-biodegradables”

ENVIRONMENT

Many cities and countries have taken strong action to radically reduce if not outright ban the use of plastic bags.  Most recently, the European Union overwhelmingly voted to ban them and member countries will pass legislation that should go into effect this year.

Dumaguete City has had an ordinance since 2011 radically reducing plastic bags and banning Styrofoam food containers.  Its enforcement?  You’d have to be blind not to know the score.

Many really smart businesses establishments are getting around the ordinance by going “oxo-.biodegradable.”  Have a look at the bags handed out by Rose Pharmacy, Mercury Drug, Hypermart, Robinson’s,  Watsons, Seven Eleven, National Bookstore  and so many others. The claim is that these bags are harmless because they will biodegrade and therefore won’t clog canals or cause flooding,  won’t lie strewn over land and waterways,  won’t end up in the sea, won’t disturb marine life.  Unfortunately, there’s no truth in these claims. In fact, 150 organizations, institutions and scientists worldwide are calling for a ban of oxo-degradable plastic bags.  As early as 2015,  France banned them.

Oxo-degradable plastic is conventional plastic containing chemical additives that cause the plastic to embrittle and to fragment. It is also referred to as PAC plastic or Pro-occidant Containing Plastic.

In 2015, nagging concerns led the European Commission to order a study from the British research institute Eunomia. Their 2016 report can be read online and other studies have followed.

A body of evidence has thus been growing that shows that oxo-degradable plastic does not totally biodegrade in a reasonable span of time and instead remains in the environment.  Only under the most favorable circumstances where the plastic is exposed to the right levels of sunlight, heat and oxygen can the plastic biodegrade,  therefore, the process may not be successful at all or it can be very slow, leaving larger pieces of plastic in the land and sea environments for a long time. But worse,  should the plastic eventually fragment,  it produces a hugely problematic type of pollution, namely “microplastics.”  These are very small fragments that can no longer be retrieved from the soil, waterways or the sea.

The oceans are a particular cause for concern as microplastics, along with larger plastic objects and microplastics are having serious negative impacts on the marine environment. News reports of dead or distressed marine animals are becoming frequent.  Particularly alarming was a  report that microplastic was found in household tap water.

Yet another worry with PAC plastic has to do with the residues of their chemical additives that remain in the environment. Questions are also raised in relation to composting or recycling where PAC plastic may be included.  On the whole, this type of plastic fails to meet international standards on true biodegradability.

The conclusion can only be that not only is “oxo-biodegradable” plastic misleading,  it is really bad news for us and for the planet.  Are there ethical business establishments that will stop distributing them? Is there any hope for decisive government action?