On November 30 and December 1, 2021, the industry association European Bioplastics held its 16th annual conference in Berlin, Germany, and online. The event gathered over 300 attendees and featured speakers from regulatory authorities, research institutes, universities, brands, the (bio)plastics industry, civil society organizations and associations, as well as certification bodies.
The first day started with a policy session opened by Kestutis Sadauskas, Director at the European Commission’s (EC) Directorate-General (DG) for Environment who highlighted the importance of sustainable materials in the European Green Deal (FPF reported) and reported on the EC’s efforts to develop a framework for bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Subsequently, Nicole Grobert, Chair of the EC’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and professor at the University of Oxford, first explained how the scientific advice mechanism works in general before presenting the results of the group’s evaluation on whether biodegradable plastic (BDP) can be part of the solution to plastic litter in the open environment (FPF reported). The three policy recommendations summarized in the report “Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment” are “1. Limit the use of BDPs in the open environment to specific applications for which reduction, reuse, and recycling are not feasible. 2. Support the development of coherent testing and certification standards for biodegradation of plastic in the open environment [and] 3. Promote the supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of BDPs to relevant user groups.” Francesca Stevens from EUROPEN, the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment, focused on bioplastic in packaging and emphasized the importance of having a harmonized definition (FPF reported), clear and harmonized labeling, certification, and sorting, as well as a method to assess the sustainability of biological feedstocks.
In the session’s panel discussion, Werner Bosmanns from DG Environment, Miriam Weber from HYDRA Marine Sciences, and Laura Griestop from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) agreed that bioplastics have a lot of potential but come along with challenges that need addressing. In addition, bioplastics should not be considered the single solution. The panelists highlighted that biodegradability does not fix littering and that considering the context is crucial to identifying applications where biodegradability is beneficial. They further emphasized the importance of simple, clear, and careful product labeling and specifications adapted to the consumers (FPF reported). Along that line, in another session, Jenk Vooijs from Novamont had a call for action to “help the consumer to do it right.” According to Vooijs, the term “biodegradable” in isolation only confuses consumers. He suggested communicating the preferred disposal route instead.
The next session evaluated opportunities for compostable plastics. Karin Molenveld from Wageningen Food and Biobased Research presented a study showing that compostable products can have positive effects on organic waste collection (e.g., biowaste collection bags) and can reduce compost contamination in certain cases (e.g., teabag, fruit stickers). The researchers further found mainly conventional plastics but not compostable plastics to contaminate composts. Thus, they concluded that banning compostable products does not solve current issues regarding plastic contamination in compost. Alberto Confalonieri from The Italian Composting and Biogas Association made a similar observation. He reported that compostable plastics account for 4% of the collected Italian food waste while non-compostable materials, such as conventional plastics and metals, account for 5%.
The speakers of the session on biodegradable plastics in the open environments emphasized that a case-to-case assessment is needed to evaluate holistically whether a product will degrade in the open environment. This means testing conditions and methods would need to be adjusted to reflect the product’s application (e.g., mulch film), its service life before degradation (e.g., days or years), as well as the conditions of the habitat the product might end up (e.g., temperature, nutrients), etc.
During the session on measuring and communicating sustainability of bio-based plastics, Simone Nessi presented the results of a study conducted by the EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The study developed a harmonized robust Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)- based methodological framework to guide companies and practitioners in evaluating the environmental impacts of plastic products from different feedstock sources. Erwin Vink directly responded by presented a position by the European Bioeconomy Alliance (EUBA) which criticizes the JRC’s methodology for favoring fossil-based over bio-based plastics and urges the Commission “to start a new review of the LCA methodology.”
On the second day, François de Bie, Chairman of European Bioplastics gave a bioplastics market update. Global bioplastics production is expected to increase from 2.4 million tonnes in 2021 to 7.5 million tonnes in 2026, representing a growth of more than 200%. This growth will mainly be driven by an increase in the production of biodegradable polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), and polybutylene succinate (PBS), and bio-based polyamides (PA). It is forecasted that the production of biodegradable polymers will increase more than the production of bio-based polymer; biodegradables are expected to account for around 70% of bioplastics in 2026. In 2021, packaging still presents the main application for bioplastics, making up about 48%.
In the subsequent sessions, industry representatives gave their perspectives on bioplastics. The speakers elaborated how these materials could help to reach sustainability goals and the transition to a circular economy and presented their (newly developed) bio-based or biodegradable materials and products. The products included bioplastics for a wide spectrum of applications such as packaging, automotive, and textiles, as well as support structures for 3D printing. In the last talk of the conference, Derek Atkinson from Total Corbion pointed out that polylactic acid (PLA) represents a promising polymer for chemical recycling which could also be applied in food contact applications. However, he also mentioned challenges that need solving to put PLA recycling into practice such as the use of fillers and other components that complicate recycling and the difficulties in collection due to the material’s small market share.
EC’s DG for Research and Innovation (December 2020). “Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment.” DOI: 1027777/690248
EUBA (November 2021). “EUBA position on the JRC LCA Methodology.” (pdf)
EUBP (November 2021). “Accelerated growth: global production capacities of bioplastics 2021-2026.” (pdf)
EUBP (December 1, 2021). “Global bioplastics production will more than triple within the next five years.”
EUPB (November 1, 2021). “Bio-based coalition criticizes EU methodology for LCAs favouring fossil-based over bio-based plastics.”