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How green are the new biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastic products now coming into use?

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Article Published 16 Sep 2020 Last modified 30 Sep 2020
4 min read
Photo: © John Cameron, Unsplash
We know that plastic pollution and plastic waste are a big environmental problem. In recent years, new plastic products have been introduced on the market, claiming to be better for the environment. A recently published European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing assesses their environmental credentials. To find out more, we sat down with Almut Reichel, a sustainable resource use and waste expert at the EEA.

Preventing and reducing plastic waste should indeed be the first priority, and we need to step up our efforts to prevent plastic waste, given that the amount of plastic waste is still growing. For many products, plastics can be a good solution. However, we need to design and use these plastics in a circular way, and make sure that they can be and are recycled much more than today.

How environment friendly are these new biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastic products?

First, we need to understand the differences between bio-based and fossil-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics. Biodegradable or compostable plastics can be produced from either bio-based or fossil-based raw materials, and bio-based plastics can be designed so that they compost or biodegrade, or not.

The sustainability of bio-based materials — just as of fossil-based plastics — depends on production practices, the products’ lifetime and end-of-life treatment. Biodegradable and compostable plastic products can, in some cases and for certain applications, help reduce pollution of the environment with plastics. But they are far from providing a general, stand-alone solution to the challenges Europe faces with plastics today. 

What does the new EEA briefing aim to do? Why is better public awareness so important?

There is a lot of confusion about these plastic products, what they mean and what they can offer. It is very important that people know and understand these differences. If consumers think that packaging labelled as ‘bio-based’ can be composted and throw it into the bio-waste bin, they might actually increase plastic pollution. The briefing aims to make policy makers and the public aware of such pitfalls and the need to clearly communicate these differences and how each type of plastics should be correctly disposed of.

Any claim of compostability or biodegradability should be precise and clearly related to the conditions under which the properties apply. For example, industrially compostable plastic products are designed to biodegrade under specific, controlled conditions in industrial composting plants. They do not necessarily (fully) compost in home composters,  which typically only achieve lower temperatures and where conditions such as moisture and presence of microorganisms strongly vary.

What are the key challenges and opportunities with these new plastic products?

It is important to find out for which products it makes sense to use biodegradable or compostable plastics and in which cases they might do more harm than good. For example, using compostable plastic bags for collecting food waste in households seems to increase the capture rate of food waste because consumers find them convenient. Some municipalities and waste collectors therefore recommend or require the use of certified compostable plastic bags for collecting bio-waste, while others will not accept them. This very much depends on the choices that were made when designing and building the bio-waste treatment infrastructure in each country.

On the other hand, in a circular economy, all plastics should be recycled into new plastics in the first instance. When a compostable or biodegradable plastic product is composted, you cannot produce new plastics from it, and all the energy used to produce it is lost.

Considering how confusing these new plastic products can be as to their disposal, isn’t it better to prevent the use of plastics instead?

Preventing and reducing plastic waste should indeed be the first priority, and we need to step up our efforts to prevent plastic waste, given that the amount of plastic waste is still growing. For many products, plastics can be a good solution. However, we need to design and use these plastics in a circular way, and make sure that they can be and are recycled much more than today.

What is the European Union doing to address the plastics problem? What about these new plastic products?

The European Commission published the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy in 2018. The Strategy commits the EU to reduce plastic waste, to make sure that plastic products are designed so that they can be recycled, and to invest in plastics recycling and other measures. Moreover, the Single-Use Plastics Directive of 2019 restricts certain single-use plastic products to enter the EU market and requires reducing consumption for a number of other products. These requirements apply also to bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastic products.

For plastics with biodegradable properties, the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2020 envisages creating a clear policy framework, including harmonised rules for defining and labelling compostable and biodegradable plastics and finding out in which applications using such plastics have environmental benefits. We now have to make sure that these policies are well implemented across Europe.

What work is the European Environment Agency doing on plastic waste and prevention?

Plastics is one of the key value chains identified in the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2020, so it is an important area of work for us. We analyse plastics from different perspectives. Next to our recently published briefing, we have, for example, reviewed plastic waste prevention policies in European and analysed Europe’s plastic waste trade. And later this year, we plan to publish an analysis on plastics in Europe’s circular economy, on plastics in textiles and on greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.

 

Almut Reichel

Almut Reichel

EEA expert on sustainable resource use and waste

Interview published in the September issue of the EEA Newsletter 03/2020

 

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