On December 18, 2020, the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) announced the publication of an evidence report and a scientific opinion discussing open questions regarding biodegradable plastic’s fate in the open environment and their role in a circular economy. The advice is intended to define the main challenges and to inform society, consumers, businesses, and policymakers who aim to reduce the amount of plastic waste and pollution in the environment.
In the evidence review report, leading experts found biodegradable plastics could be part of the solution to solving this problem. However, many materials labeled as biodegradable only biodegrade in “certain, specific environments”, e.g. only composting facilities, and it is not clear whether they would also degrade generally in open environments. Whether, how much, and how long a material biodegrades depends not only on the material itself but is also very strongly dependent on which environmental conditions it is exposed to.
Therefore, the group of Chief Scientific Advisors recommends in their opinion piece that biodegradable plastics should not be seen as a silver-bullet solution for inappropriate waste management of plastic littering. Rather their application should remain limited to specific applications, e.g. tea bags, where food waste would contaminate plastic recycling streams. They further add “it would be better to reduce the amount of plastic we use — or to re-use it, recycle it, or, where we can, compost it in industrial plants.” These conclusions are in line with a recent panel discussion at the European Bioplastics conference (FPF reported).
Furthermore, the advisors recommended legislators should support the development of coherent testing and certification standards to realize the potential environmental benefits over conventional plastics. In addition, a supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of biodegradable plastics and their applications should be promoted to relevant user groups.
Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director of European Bioplastics (EUBP), agrees with the experts’ opinions that biodegradable plastics’ benefits will only be fully accessible if the plastic formulations are appropriate to the receiving environment. Moreover, he stated:
“If we are to realize the full potential of biodegradable plastics, the EU must put in place supportive measures to improve labeling, 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.”
EC (December 2020). “One-Page Summary: Scientific Opinion: Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment.” (pdf)
EC (December 2020). “Executive Summary: Scientific Opinion: Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment.” (pdf)
SAPEA (December 2020). “Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment: Report.” (pdf)
SAM (December 2020). “Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment.” (pdf)
SAPEA (December 2020). “New advice: Do biodegradable plastics bring benefits?”
EUBP (December 17, 2020). “Commission’s SAM report confirms role of biodegradable plastics within a circular economy.”