A report entitled “Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment” published last week by the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) discusses, among other things, applications for biodegradable polymers that contribute towards achieving a circular economy and tackle the challenge of managing the EU’s mounting plastic waste problem.
“We are pleased to see that this report clearly identifies several beneficial application areas for biodegradable plastics, even though this was not its original focus”, said Hasso von Pogrell, managing director of European Bioplastics (EUBP).
“We also welcome the call for economic incentives to promote appropriate disposal behaviour as well as the need for further research that it highlights,” he added.
“The SAM report emphasises the advantages of applications from biodegradable plastics ‘where it is challenging to remove or collect a particular plastic product or its fragments from the environment after use’. Mulch films made from conventional plastics, for example, are widely used in European agriculture. The challenge of plastic accumulation in soil can be tackled with the soil-biodegradable alternative.”
EUBP was pleased to note that the report also highlighted the benefits of biodegradable plastic products “where it is difficult to separate plastic from organic material that is destined for a composting waste stream or wastewater treatment”. Packaging that is highly contaminated with food scraps, cannot be mechanically recycled and tends to end up being incinerated or, even worse, landfilled.
Selecting industrial compostable packaging enables this contaminated waste fraction to be disposed of in the organic recycling stream. Moreover, various studies have shown that the use of industrially compostable biowaste bags significantly increases the capture rate of biowaste.
However, EUBP agrees with the study authors that “the potential benefits of biodegradable plastics will only be realised if the formulation of the product is appropriate to the receiving environment, and if any potential for the item or its fragments to escape to a receiving environment in which it biodegrades more slowly, is minimised”. Moreover, an effective waste management infrastructure is vital to assure the proper management of biodegradable and compostable plastics.
“Industrially compostable plastics will become increasingly relevant in this context, as the EU’s objective of diverting organic waste from landfill by end of 2023 approaches”, said Von Pogrell.
The report is an important first step in considering scientific evidence on the biodegradability of certain plastics in the open environment. It also makes clear that in the fight to reduce the volume of plastic waste and to transition towards a circular economy, the entire value chain, including consumers, and national and regional authorities must pull together if these efforts are to be successful.
“If we are to realise the full potential of biodegradable plastics, the EU must put in place supportive measures to improve labelling, uphold and periodically review certification and standards, and facilitate communication on waste management. Consumers are seeking out sustainability more and more. However, they need to be helped with the challenges of delivering a circular economy through more effective waste prevention, recycling and management measures including through organic recycling. European Bioplastics stands ready to support in this endeavour,” concluded Von Pogrell.