The study, published yesterday, found that plastics that incorporate additives to accelerate degradation were potentially damaging to the recycling stream and should be incinerated after use – while landfill was the second-best option.
Defra environment minister Dan Norris called on packaging manufacturers and buyers to drop claims that oxo-degradable plastic packaging was more environmentally friendly than other types of plastic packaging following the report’s publication.
The Co-operative has said it will not be using oxo-degradable plastic in its carrier bags in the future as a result of the research, which also concluded that the current use of the term “biodegradable” is “virtually meaningless”.
Defra’s report, which was produced by Loughborough University at a total cost of £39,000, said that oxo-degradable plastics should not be sent for recycling as they can make the recyclate more likely to degrade and potentially harm packaging made from it.
It also warned that the use of the term “biodegradable” was “virtually meaningless” to consumers at present, as it is used to describe a wide and incompatible range of types and speeds of degradation.
However, the report did play down previous criticism over the effect on the natural environment of the tiny particles of degraded plastic which result from oxo-degradable additives, saying that there was currently no evidence that the particles were a threat to animals, birds, fish or insects.
Biodegradable ‘should be dropped‘
Defra’s report, , recommended that the term “biodegradable” should either be banned from labelling and replaced with instructions for disposal, or the type of biodegradability should be defined on labels.
Environment minister, Dan Norris said: “As these plastics cannot be composted, the term biodegradable can cause confusion. Incorrect disposal of oxo-degradable plastics has the potential to negatively affect both recycling and composting facilities.
“We hope this research will discourage manufacturers and retailers from claiming that these materials are better for the environment than conventional plastics.
Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager, The Co-operative Food said: “We have already decided to stop purchasing carrier bags with the oxo-biodegradable additive and with the support of our customers and staff, we have reduced carrier bag numbers by 60% in the last three years.
“We have also launched the UK’s first home-compostable carrier bag, certified by the Association for Organic Recycling (and to EN 13432), which is accepted for food waste collections by a number of local authorities.”
‘Latest salvo in oxo- versus hydro-degradable war’
In a statement, oxo-degradable additive producer Symphony described the report as the “latest salvo in the oxo- versus hydro-degradable war” and said the allegations were familiar to firms in the sector.
Symphony said it would be making a full response in due course, but said: “It should be obvious that plastic which self-destructs at the end of its useful life, leaving no harmful residues, is better for the environment than normal or recycled plastic, which can lie or float around for decades.”
The firm also claimed that the Loughborough University did not do any experiments itself and that it was concerned to find that that “two of the three assessors of the report were themselves engaged in bio-based plastics, which is a totally different discipline to oxo- biodegradable”.
Symphony added that it is expecting a report from Defra on the use of crops in biofuels and bioplastics and their effect on the environment.