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18 March 2010 | PR 10/52

Research questions the environmental credentials of ‘degradable’ plastics

Some plastics marked as ‘degradable’ might not be as environmentally-friendly as consumers think, according to new Loughborough University research.

The study, funded by Defra and carried out by the University’s Department of Materials, examined the environmental effects of oxo-degradable plastics which are made from the most common types of plastic, but include small amounts of additives to make them degrade at an accelerated rate.

Oxo-degradable plastics are used in plastic bags and packaging and are often advertised as being degradable, biodegradable or environmentally-friendly.   However, the independent study found that using additives to accelerate their degradation will not improve their environmental impact.  The study highlighted the uncertainty about the impact of the plastics on the natural environment when they begin to breakdown into smaller pieces.  It also raised concerns that these plastics are neither suitable for conventional recycling methods, due to the chemical additives, nor suitable for composting, due to the plastic not breaking down fast enough.

Manufacturers, retailers, trade bodies and waste treatment companies were all consulted in the research, which was also put through a rigorous independent peer review by recognised academics.

Loughborough’s Dr Noreen Thomas, who carried out the research along with colleagues Dr Jane Clarke,   Dr Andrew McLauchlin and Stuart Patrick, believes it is important consumers know the true facts about oxo-degradable plastics.  She added: “'The overall conclusion of our report is that incorporation of additives into petroleum-based plastics that cause those plastics to undergo accelerated degradation does not improve their environmental impact and may give rise to certain negative effects.”

Speaking about the research, Defra’s Environment Minister, Dan Norris said: “The study clearly shows us that consumers risk being confused by some claims made about oxo-degradable plastics.  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.  I’ve been in touch with the companies affected and one retailer, the Co-operative, has already confirmed that it will not be using this type of plastic in its carrier bags in the future.  This is a positive step and will make it easier for people to do the right thing by the environment.”

Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager, The Co-operative Food added: “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.”

Products made from compostable plastic are tested and able to bio-degrade within six months.  To be totally sure the plastic you are buying is compostable, look for the following logos. The logo to the left certifies that the material is home compostable, and the logo to the right certifies that the material is suitable for industrial composting.

Defra is currently updating its guidance on Green Claims that will help businesses make accurate and robust claims about the environmental performance of their products and services and the guidance will be out for consultation during 2010.


For all media enquiries contact:

Judy Wing
Senior PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 228697
E: J.L.Wing@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

1.  To see the final report use the link below:


Defra commissioned Loughborough University to review the environmental effects of oxo-degradable plastics.  In particular, to assess:

  • The extent to which and timeframe within which oxo-degradable plastics degrade or biodegrade
  • The effects of the degradation or biodegradation of oxo-degradable plastics in the natural environment (e.g. soil, water) and different disposal facilities (e.g. recycling, industrial composting).
  • The study was carried out over 12 month period, involving an in-depth review of current research as well as consultation with manufacturers, retailers, trade bodies and waste treatment industries. Policy representatives and experts from DECC, Defra, the National Non-Food Crop Centre (NNFCC) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) have been involved throughout the research.
  • Biodegradation is a process where micro-organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, metabolise substances and break them down to simple molecules (i.e. carbon dioxide and water).  For a plastic to biodegrade it must first start to fragment into smaller pieces. The difference between degradation and biodegradation is that biodegradation is caused by the action of living organisms, whereas degradation is not.  Biodegradation is an important process for composting. To be compostable a plastic must biodegrade within 180 days to leave no visible, distinguishable or toxic waste.
  • If an oxo-degradable plastic is littered, it will still remain as litter for some time until it starts to degrade into smaller plastic fragments.  We cannot predict what effect these plastic fragments may have on plants, animals or the marine environment.
  • It is difficult to know whether or how oxo-degradable plastics degrade in landfill, as it depends on whereabouts of the plastics.  If they are at the top of the landfill site for enough time it is likely they will start to degrade.  If they end up buried beneath the surface in landfill, where there is no air, they may not break down at all.
  • The industrial compostable logo relates to the European Standard (EN13432) for industrial composting. The Home Compostable label scheme and certification scheme relates specifically to suitability for home composting, but also assures compliance with the EN13432 standard.
  • The new Home Compostable label is recognised by the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme managed by OPRL Ltd (see:www.onpackrecyclinglabel.org.uk). The updated OPRL guidelines that are due in April will include the proposed compostable packaging icon as well as recycling. It will direct companies to AfOR for certification and approval.

2. Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2009 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top five universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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