A packaging solution to the Great Pacific Garbage soup?

Pacific rubbish soup

Pacific rubbish soup

As many people know, there is a huge and ever-increasing mountain of rubbish growing in the middle of the Pacific, like a giant festering ’soup’, much of which consists of plastic packaging waste. This has had a massive knock-on affect in the  form of polluted beaches on islands throughout the South Pacific, such as the popular Kamilo beach in Hawaii.

A British company believe that they have a packaging remedy. Symphony Environmental has created a substance that can be added to plastic materials to speed up the degradation time from several decades to just a few months.

Apparently “The special additive, called d2w, is put into plastic products when they are being manufactured. It works by weakening the carbon bonds, lowering the material’s molecular weight and eventually causing a loss of strength. The plastic can be given a set lifespan, depending on what purpose it is ultimately intended for.”

The aim is to get bread bags for instance to degrade in a matter of weeks and other items, designed for a longer shelf-life to degrade over many months.

This sounds great in theory and clearly a lot of research has taken place since this company was set up in 1995. We are in favour of any initiatives that help reduce/manage packaging waste. However, there are a number of issues that need to be clarified and addressed (if they haven’t been already).

What happens when one freezes items such as bread, to extend shelf-life? Will the degradation process be retarded or halted? Many items, such as toiletry products are used way beyond their stated shelf life. Does that mean that these items could degrade in the cupboard whilst still in-use?

It is also interesting to note that there seems to be “stern opposition from rivals” as the “plastics industry is split into two camps”: There are those that back ‘oxy-biodegradable’ (like dw2) that breaks-down simply with contact with air and those that back ‘bio-degradable’, which require more specific conditions such as burial in the ground and elevated temperature, to work.

I’m not so sure that there is such a defined “split” within the industry and can see the merits and issues of both of these approaches and, in our  opinion, both should continue to be developed. In terms of ‘Oxy-biodegradable’, as I’ve already mentioned above, degradation before end of shelf-life/use is an issue and what happens if a product is, for instance, left in direct sunlight – will this alter the degradation time frame? As far as ‘Bio-degradable’ goes – it is my understanding that unless specific elevated temperatures are reached,  degradation will not commence. So, for it to work properly, industrial bio-degradation facilities are required  – these materials will not degrade properly in a normal household composting bin.

Michael Stephen of Symphony also talks about bio-producers  having convinced British farmers that “crop-based plastics are best” but that “this is wrong…because when they are recycled they give off methane”. On top of this there area a number of concerns with these products around the use of scarce food resources to make packaging.

All of these materials could also present a potential issue of contaminating ‘normal’ recycling waste if not clearly identified & managed properly and I’m not sure that this issue is being addressed. Chris Penfold

What do you think? Let us know.

Taken from an article written by Ben Marlow which appeared in the UK Sunday Times on 7th March 2010. You can read the full article at the Times Online here: Great Pacific Garbage Patch article


  1. Tricky one.

    Like you, and others, I have long wondered if many degradation processes simply are not ways of turning pollution you can see into another form, be it released GHGs or…’soup’.

    I know the oceans are vast, and the risk of choking is less, but the notion of an ever greater % of plastic waste ending up in unrecoverable solution passing through gills and/or alimentary systems does not appeal either.

    The ideal is, of course, it never gets ‘there’. But next up, for me at least, for now, has to be high enviROI+ recovery.

    And for a bit of ‘we’re doomed’ sensationalist fun, as Space 1999 impressed upon me the potential of stockpiling nuclear waste until ‘a’ point it cane treated, so an episode of Doomwatch had me wary of mircrobes that could eat and propagate… http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0564476/

  2. Symphony UK says:

    If d2w plastic is used to wrap goods in a deep-freeze the plastic will retain its integrity for an extended period, and it will start degrading as soon as it is exposed to a normal environment. Elevated temperatures are not then necessary for degradation to commence – all that is needed is air. If left in direct sunlight the process will be accelerated. Degradation before end of shelf-life is not an issue, because the timeline programmed into the plastic at manufacture takes account of the conditions likely to be experienced during the service-life.

    By contrast “compostable” plastics do need to be put into an industrial composting plant before they will degrade, but d2w plastic does not. d2w will degrade in any environment in contact with air or dissolved oxygen. “Compostable” plastics emit methane deep in landfill, but d2w plastic does not. d2w plastic can be recycled during its service-life (see http://www.biodeg.org/position-papers/recycling/?domain=biodeg.org) but “compostable” plastics cannot. d2w plastic does not release GHG’s. It completely biodegrades, like twigs and straw, leaving no harmful residues and no fragments of petro-polymer. For more information see http://www.d2w.net

  3. George Fee says:

    The only solution is oxo-biodegradable plastic; the matter of recycling has been clarified several times by learned polymer scientists who have stated that oxo is in fact the only degradable plastic that can safely be recycled along with other plastic waste.

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