Over 150 organizations back call to ban oxo-degradable plastic packaging

What are oxo-degradable plastics?

Oxo-degradable plastics are conventional polymers (e.g. LDPE) to which chemicals are added to accelerate the oxidation and fragmentation of the material under the action of UV light and/or heat, and oxygen. Oxo-degradable plastics should not be confused with compostable plastics that comply with international standards and can be safely biodegraded through (industrial) composting.

Oxo-degradable plastic packaging, including single-use bags, are 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 and contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to the ocean and other ecosystems, potentially for decades to come.

Why ban oxo-degradable plastic packaging?

Plastic Pollution Coalition joins over 150 organizations worldwide endorsing the new statement that proposes banning oxo-degradable plastic packaging worldwide. 

“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.

“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, 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 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. For example, in the UK 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 organizations, 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.

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Six innovators won the Circular Design Challenge (part 1 of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize) earlier this month and will share a $1 million prize. The challenge focused on plastic packaging items that are too small or too complex to be recycled like shampoo sachets, wrappers, and coffee cup lids, which often end up as plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and environment. 

So who are the winning innovators and what do their products do? The winners fall into three categories: rethinking grocery shopping, redesigning sachets, and reinventing coffee-to-go.

  1. Rethinking grocery shopping. Today’s supermarkets are full of single-use plastic packaging. By rethinking the way we get products to people around the world, innovators can design out waste.
    1. MIWA, from the Czech Republic, introduces an app that lets shoppers order the exact quantities of the groceries they need, which are then delivered in reusable packaging from the producer to their closest store or to their home.
    2. Algramo, a Chilean social enterprise, offers products in small quantities in reusable containers across a network of 1,200 local convenience stores in Chile.
  2. Redesigning sachets. Hundreds of billions of sachets are sold each year to get small quantities of personal care and food products, such as shampoo and soy sauce, to people in emerging markets. Those sachets are not recycled and many end up polluting the ocean.
    1. Evowar, an Indonesian startup, designs food wrappings and sachets (containing instant coffee or flavoring for noodles) made out of a seaweed-based material that can be dissolved and eaten.
    2. Delta, from the United Kingdom, offers a compact technology that allows restaurants to make and serve sauces in edible and compostable sachets.
  3. Reinventing coffee-to-go. More than 100 billion disposable coffee cups are sold globally every year, yet today almost none of them (nor their lids) are recycled.
    1. CupClub, based in the United Kingdom, introduces a reusable cup subscription service, in which reusable cups can be dropped off at any participating store.
    2. TrioCup, from the United States, offers a disposable paper cup made with an origami-like technique that removes the need for a plastic lid. The team has chosen a 100 percent compostable material and is working on an alternative that is 100 percent recyclable.

Winners will participate in the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, a 12-month program specifically designed to advance and scale their innovations. 

Learn more about The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize.

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit launched a $2 million innovation prize on Thursday in London, England. The initiative calls for new ways of designing packaging to prevent plastics from polluting the world’s oceans.

“After 40 years of effort, globally only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with one third escaping collection and ending up in the environment,” explains Dame Ellen MacArthur in a press release. “If we want to change this, we must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics. We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That’s why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastics system that works.”

The New Plastics Economy is three-year initiative to build momentum towards a plastics system that works. Applying the principles of the circular economy, it brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging. Learn more about the innovation prize. 

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