On March 24, 2021, news provider Packaging Digest published an article by four food packaging experts concerned about the use of new biodegradable additives in food packaging and criticizing their resulting unintended degradation and release of toxic chemicals. The authors argue that their use promotes “business as usual” practices as well as poses a significant human health risk when used in food packaging.
The article discusses a new group of non-oxo biodegradable additives that have hit the plastic manufacturing market and are being promoted as “enhancing” the biodegradability of otherwise recalcitrant plastics. The authors of the article describe these chemicals as “distractors” as they mislead and distract the public from real solutions to the plastic pollution problem. They list three reasons why they view these additives as problematic, especially when considering their use in food packaging:
Firstly, they point out that the degradation behavior is hardly controllable, with biodegradation and general disintegration of the packaging occurring also when and where it is not desired, for example outside of landfills, in recycled packaging, or during food storage. This is seen as leading to more littering, chemical pollution, and increased food waste.
Secondly, the release of degradation products and chemicals upon degradation is seen as not only posing a threat to the environment but also as a significant human health risk when migration from packaging to food occurs. This is even more important as the chemicals and their hazards can be unknown due to laws protecting confidential business information.
Thirdly, these additives are seen to hinder targeting the actual problem of single-use of food packaging. The authors write that solving this central issue will require “adopting new business models that use reusable, refillable containers. It means redesigning not only packaging but how foods are produced, processed, and consumed.”
Additives promoting oxo-degradation had been discussed in the past as a solution to reduce pollution from packaging waste. However, these additives had raised environmental pollution concerns including promotion of the fragmentation of plastics to non-degradable micro-and nano plastic particles. For this and other reasons, the effectiveness and environmental impacts of oxo-degradable plastics were questioned (FPF reported).
According to a study published in Environmental Science Technology led by Susan Selke that tested five common biodegradation promoting additives, including non-oxo additives, “no evidence was found that these additives promote and/or enhance biodegradation of PE or PET polymers.” In May 2019, the EU Council adopted the Directive (EU) 2019/904 which banned not only multiple single-use plastic product types but also oxo-degradable plastics (FPF reported).
Sand C., Muncke J., Lilienfeld R., Robertson G. (March 24, 2021). “We know that biodegradable additives in packaging are the wrong solution to the plastics problem, so why are they still on the table?” Packaging Digest
Sand C., Muncke J., Lilienfeld R., Robertson G. (March 24, 2021). “We know that biodegradable additives in packaging are the wrong solution to the plastics problem, so why are they still on the table?” Plastics Today
Selke et al (February 2015). “Evaluation of Biodegradation-Promoting Additives for Plastics.” Environmental Science and Technology