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Unilever, PepsiCo wash hands of 'biodegradable' plastic

Emerging evidence suggests oxo-degradable packaging could be more harmful than previously realized.

More than 150 organizations, including some of the world's best-known brands, issued a call for governments around the world to ban oxo-degradable plastic packaging over fears it can have harmful effects on marine and land environments.

In a statement organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, firms including M&S, Unilever and PepsiCo backed the phase-out of the plastic, which is widely used in packaging and plastic carrier bags and previously had been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional plastics.

Although oxo-degradable plastics are commonly believed to biodegrade into harmless residues, some scientific evidence suggests the material actually can break down into tiny particles of microplastics that end up in rivers and oceans, causing damage to marine life and the aquatic environment.

"The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution," Rob Opsomer, lead for systemic initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement. "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."

Some governments and businesses in Europe already have started to curb the use of oxo-biodegradable plastics.

The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim.

Retailers Tesco and the Co-Operative have stopped using it to make their plastic bags, while France banned its use nationwide in 2015.

However, in most countries the substance is still widely used and even promoted as a green alternative to non-degradable plastics. 

The statement calls for governments to ban the use of the material until further tests can determine its impact on the environment. 

"We support applying the precautionary principle by banning oxo-degradable plastic packaging from the market until extensive, independent third-party research and testing based on international standards… possibly combined with technological progress and innovation, clearly confirms sufficient biodegradation of the plastic fragments in different environments, and over a time-scale short enough for particles not to accumulate in ecosystems," the statement recommends.

"To create a system in which plastic packaging never becomes waste, we support innovation that designs out waste and pollution, and keeps products and materials in high-value use."

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