On December 1, 2020, participants of the 15th European Bioplastics (EUBP) annual conference could follow the panel titled “Handling of Composting Landscape – quo vadis?” During the panel, the speakers discussed which role compostable plastics will play in reaching a circular, climate-neutral economy and what obstacles currently hinder the acceptance of such biodegradable plastics. The conference brought together representatives from industry, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations.
Katharina Schlegel (team leader of Global Market Development Biopolymers at BASF) highlighted in her presentation that avoiding landfilling and incineration of organic waste could reduce our global carbon footprint by 1.4%. However, there is still a high organic content in residual waste in many countries (e.g. Germany 40%), and there is microplastic contamination in compost that needs to be addressed as it affects compost quality. Enzo Favoino (Chair of the Scientific Committee of Zero Waste Europe) added that the current recycling and recovery targets of 65% for 2030 for plastic waste, will only be obtainable if high organic waste separation is achieved. The organic content needs to be minimized in order to reduce costs and to accelerate the recycling rate of other materials.
Schlegel criticizes that many problems are currently not solved by pushing plastic producers to accelerate the disintegration of their compostable plastics. The main source for contamination does not stem from compostable plastics but other “misthrows,” meaning contamination from non-biodegradable plastics in the waste stream. This has also been shown by a recent report by Wageningen University under Marten van der Zee (senior scientist at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research).
Even with recent studies published confirming the biodegradability standards used for certifying all kinds of compostable products – there still exists uncertainty among composters. Facilities, therefore, tend to reject compostable plastics fearing for the quality of their product.
All panel participants agreed that biodegradable plastics play an important role in increasing waste separation and organic waste recovery, mostly as a tool to collect organic waste. It is, therefore, crucial to communicate well with the local composting facilities and identify and address sources of conflict.
Besides, it should be avoided to see compostable plastics as an “all-in-one solution” because they are not designed to solve, e.g., the littering problem. The panelists agreed on the question that compostable plastics can best be used in the context of collecting food waste and food scraps, such as biodegradable coffee capsules, fruit stickers, or teabags. Katharina Schlegel also added, “we should be careful not to harm already existing well-functioning mechanical recycling loops (e.g. PET) by adding a second biodegradable route to the agenda.” Van Maarten stated that we should be careful not to confuse consumers by unnecessarily including new applications in the list of biodegradable products as it may, in turn, encourage “misthrow.”
Maarten Van der Zee & Karin Molenveld (February 2020). “The fate of (compostable) plastic products in a full scale industrial organic waste treatment facility.” Wageningen University Research (pdf)
Favoino et al (2020). “Bio-waste generation in the EU: Current capture levels and future potential.” Zero Waste Europe (pdf)