Over 150 businesses, industry associations, NGOs, scientists and politicians have issued a call to end the use of some so-called ‘degradable’ plastic over concerns that these materials do not properly break down in the marine environment.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has joined over 150 other signatories to call for a ban on the use of oxo-degradable plastic packaging. This material, also used in carrier bags, is often marketed as a solution to plastic pollution with claims that such plastics degrade into harmless residues within a period ranging from a few months to several years.

However, as outlined in a new statement by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, significant evidence indicates that oxo-degradable plastics do not degrade into harmless residues, but instead fragment into tiny pieces of plastic that contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to marine wildlife and ecosystems – potentially for decades to come.

As Rob Opsomer, lead for systemic initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explains: “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.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative has published a statement calling for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging.

Signatories include FFI, M&S, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia, British Plastics Federation, Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association, Packaging South Africa, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and ten Members of the European Parliament. In total, over 150 organisations, including leading businesses representing every step of the plastics supply chain, industry associations, NGOs, scientists, and elected officials have endorsed the statement calling for global action to avoid wide-scale environmental risk.

“As we set out during our testimony to the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee in 2016, so-called ‘biodegradable’ plastics are not a solution to the massive plastic problem in our seas. These materials do not biodegrade properly in the marine environment, and in fact oxo-degradable plastics just break up faster than conventional plastics into smaller and smaller pieces that can then be eaten by an even wider array of marine wildlife,” says Dilyana Mihaylova, marine plastics projects officer at FFI.

“Prioritising non-plastic materials where possible or truly reusable and recyclable plastics within a circular economy would be a much better alternative,” she adds.

As a result of the significant body of evidence raising concerns about the potential negative impacts of plastic fragments from oxo-degradable plastics, an increasing number of companies and governments have started to take action to restrict their use, in particular in Europe.

In the UK, for example, retailers such as Tesco and the Co-operative stopped the use of oxo-degradable plastics in their carrier bags. France banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics altogether in 2015.

However, 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, 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 create a plastics system that works, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, together with the signing organisations, supports innovation that designs out waste and pollution, and keeps products and materials in high-value use in line with the principles of a circular economy.

Note: Oxo-degradable plastics should not be confused with compostable plastics that comply with international standards and can be safely biodegraded through (industrial) composting.