Releasing its policy framework on bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics this week, the European Commission highlights that a number of conditions need to be met for such plastics to have a positive environmental impact – rather than exacerbating plastic pollution.
“Biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics can bring advantages over conventional ones if designed for circularity, produced safely and from sustainably sourced feedstock, prioritizing the efficient use of secondary biomass, and compliant with relevant standards,” it says.
“However, these plastics also present challenges. It is important to ensure that they contribute to the circular economy, which aims to keep the value of resources, materials and products in the economy for as long as possible and to avoid waste.”
But European Bioplastics, which represents the European bioplastics industry, says that bio-based feedstocks will be a necessary part of the future if the European Union is to move away from plastic waste as per its wide-ranging Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) proposals released this week.
A growing industry
Globally, bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics represent 1% of total plastic production capacity, for a volume of over two million tonnes per year.
That is not much: but production is expected to grow faster than in previous years and will double share of total plastic production capacity by 2025.
Asia accounts for nearly half of production capacity, but it's an increasingly important area in Europe, with around a quarter. As the industry grows, the European Commission wants to ensure it grows in the right way.
A key, overriding problem with the sector, it says, is that consumers are misled into assuming anything with the word 'bio' in its is sustainable - while the full picture is much more complicated.
Bio-based plastics are essentially those which are made from biomass as opposed to fossil resources. Commonly used raw materials are sugarcane, cereal crops, oil crops, wood, cooking oil, bagasse and tall oil. Plastics can be fully or partially made from bio-based feedstock. Bio-based plastics can be either biodegradable or non-biodegradable.
Biodegradable plastics are those designed to decompose at the end of life by conversion of all organic constituents into carbon dioxide, water, new biomass, mineral salts, and, in the absence of oxygen, methane.
Compostable plastics, meanwhile, are a subset of biodegradable plastics designed to biodegrade under controlled conditions, typically through industrial composting in special facilities for composting or anaerobic digestion.
Production of biomass requires the use of natural resources (land and water) and the use of chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. That can create competition with crops needed for human consumption, or result in deforestation or ecosystem degradation.
“The circular economy action plan identifies the need to address emerging sustainability challenges related to sourcing, labelling and the use of bio-based plastics, based on assessing where the use of bio-based feedstock results in genuine environmental benefits, going beyond reduction in using fossil resources," says the EC in its policy framework.
"This means also ensuring that the use of bio-based feedstock does not have negative impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems or land and water use.”
To tackle this, producers should prioritize the use of organic waste and by-products as feedstock, says the framework. And when this isn’t possible, biomass needs to be created in a sustainable way.
“As consumers expect bio-based plastics to be genuinely sustainable, whenever a product is made of bio-based content and carries a claim on bio-based content, the content must originate from sustainably sourced biomass.”
There is currently no mandatory minimum bio-based content nor agreed certification scheme for a plastic product to be labelled as 'biobased'.
The EC wants to see this changed: when communicating on bio-based content, the policy will specify producers should refer to the exact and measurable share of biobased plastic content in the product (for example: ‘the product contains 50% bio-based plastic content').
Radiocarbon-based methods should be preferred for measuring bio-based content.
The EC says that biodegradable plastics ‘must be approached with caution’.
A group of scientific advisors were charged with assessing the biodegradability of plastics in the open environment – with their resulting opinion going as far as to suggest limiting the use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment ‘only to specific applications for which reduction, reuse or recycling are not feasible’.
Much of this comes from concerns over whether products end up in the right environment in which they can biodegrade.
Another concern is the additives which are used for manufacturing biodegradable plastics and their potential toxicity – ‘a comparison with conventional plastics indicates that biodegradable plastics can be similarly toxic’.
Any plastics labelled ‘biodegradable’ should specify exactly what circumstances they will biodegrade in and how long it will take, says the policy framework.
“Biodegradable plastics have their place in a sustainable future, but they need to be directed to specific applications where their environmental benefits and value for the circular economy are proven.
"Biodegradable plastics should by no means provide a licence to litter. Also, they must be labelled to show how long they will take to biodegrade, under which circumstances and in which environment. Products that are likely to be littered including those covered by the Single-Use Plastics Directive cannot be claimed to be or labelled as biodegradable.”
“Industrially compostable plastics [the policy does not cover home composting] should only be used when they have environmental benefits, they do not negatively affect the quality of the compost and when there is a proper biowaste collection and treatment system in place. Industrially compostable packaging will only be allowed for tea bags, filter coffee pods and pads, fruit and vegetable stickers, and very light plastic bags. The products must always specify that they are certified for industrial composting, in line with EU standards.”
Industry association: 'We would have expected stronger support'
European Bioplastics, which represents the interest of the European bioplastics industry, says the Commission has missed an opportunity to fully embrace a ‘necessary shift’ to bio-based feedstock.
It notes that the sustainability issues around bio-based plastics are complex – but that the EU’s packaging proposals to prioritize recycled content and recycling is simply not enough to replace the dependence on fossil resources.
“We appreciate the Commission’s first comprehensive policy framework on innovative bioplastic materials, acknowledging their potential to provide genuine environmental benefits. EUBP in particular commends the Commission’s endorsement of the important role of compostable plastic packaging in the proposed packaging rules in reaching the ambitious waste and climate targets,” says Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director of EUBP, “however, we would have expected stronger support for the use of bio-based feedstock”.
“The Commission’s proposal for a Regulation on Packaging and Packaging Waste (PPWR) recognises the contributions of compostable plastics in increasing the volumes and quality of separately collected bio waste and reducing the contamination of (organic) waste streams. By making several packaging applications mandatory to be compostable in industrial composting facilities, including tea bags, filter coffee pods and pads, fruit stickers, and very lightweight plastic carrier bags, the Commission is taking a first step in the right direction.
“Unfortunately, a few persistent misconceptions remain in the Communication on the policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics with regards to land-use, the methods used to evaluate environmental benefits, alleged risks of cross-contamination of waste streams, as well as biodegradability in different environments. It prevented the Commission from fully embracing the shift to bio-based products that would enable Europe to reduce its dependency on fossil resources and achieve its ambitious climate and circularity goals.”
Notably, the Commission’s proposal for a PPWR does not go as far as promoting bio-based content equally to recycled content through targets to help secure feedstock availability, to achieve recycled content targets, and to meet the strict requirements for contact-sensitive materials.
"We call on EU policymakers to show more ambition and clear vision in their political support to bio-based and compostable plastics by improving and further clarifying the proposal with the aim to decisively support innovation in the sector of sustainable materials and packaging solutions, ensuring that investments, jobs, and innovation remain in Europe”, concludes von Pogrell.
The European Commission’s policy framework on bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics will guide future EU work on this issue, for example Ecodesign requirements for sustainable products, funding programs and international discussions.
The Commission encourages citizens, public authorities and businesses to use this framework in their policy, investment or purchasing decisions.