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The million-euro question: do bioplastics truly ensure environmental benefits?

Bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics are currently under the European Commission’s spotlight. Whether or not they actually bring genuine environmental benefits is the question the Commission is trying to answer with several important policy measures that are meant to regulate bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics (or BBP/BDCP for short).

Today, global bioplastics production capacities are around 2.42 million tonnes and growing, yet there is no relevant EU law in place. Manufacturers forecast a 315 per cent increase in production volumes for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics between 2021-2026. Even though this starkly contrasts with European Commission estimates (a mere 5–8 per cent increase between 2020 and 2025), these projections strongly support the need for robust legal coverage of these plastics to mitigate the burden shifting from conventional plastic production and waste to bio-based plastics.

This is why the European Commission is taking a close look to determine if these plastics deliver on their promises – such as mitigating plastic pollution – as well as bring clarity to the market so both consumers and businesses can easily understand the differences between these plastics. The legislator is aiming to address these issues with communication, to be adopted by the end of 2022, as well as through the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and initiatives to Empower Consumers in the Green Transition and to Substantiate Green Claims.

bioplastics
Surce: ECOS.

Calling it as it is: a bioplastic spade is a spade made of plastic

Bioplastics will not solve the plastic pollution crisis, as the way to go is to cut plastic pollution at the source through material use reduction, better design and better waste management. Replacing entire lines of single-use plastic bottles with bio-based or biodegradable plastics is unrealistic and it will still pollute the environment on the same problematic scale.

But before that, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. It is crucial to differentiate bio-based from biodegradable and compostable plastics. These three types of plastics are often confused by consumers – particularly when grouped under the vague term of bioplastics.

Contrary to the popular assumption, biodegradable and compostable plastics often still pose health and environmental risks. As already reported, biodegradable plastics can contain the same hazardous additives as conventional plastics. This means that these plastics do not always fully biodegrade and may leave behind chemicals which contaminate the soil and consequently the products of agricultural lands.

In addition, biodegradable, compostable or bio-based labels often lead to consumer confusion. Seeking to make the right disposal choice, consumers may think that the item will biodegrade in nature or in their home compost, which often isn’t the case. It is crucial for manufacturers to indicate the proper way to dispose of bio-based plastics: let’s not forget that in 2020, around 40 per cent of all bio-based plastics were in fact not biodegradable and many types of bio-based plastics are also not recyclable. These claims could attract consumers to products that seem green but are greenwashed instead.

Setting the right standards

The European Commission is now exploring the need for updating existing EU standards regarding the definition of appropriate testing of biodegradation and composting conditions for plastic, as well as their labelling. As plastics biodegrade, they all break down into microparticles which can be ingested by local fauna, or adsorb chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants, and migrate into water and soil, potentially harming life at any of these steps. ECOS has already demonstrated that current standards do not ensure full and safe biodegradability.

What is more, standards must better reflect industrial composting conditions (such as the actual duration of the process) and become more stringent so that all chemical elements of biodegradable plastics are fully biodegradable and non-toxic under industrial composting conditions. The Commission must therefore set higher biodegradability requirements than those in existing standards if it is to prevent misleading labelling and improper disposal of the plastics in question.

Bio-based plastic does not ensure sustainability

In fact, the environmental footprint of bio-based plastics is not necessarily lower than that of their fossil counterparts. BBPs cannot be considered inherently circular and sustainable and so they should not be used as a greener substitute for fossil-based plastics without a proper environmental assessment. What is more, the labelling of bio-based plastic content is also the subject of controversy: some products are labelled as bio-based or natural when only a fraction (or none) of the product actually comes from a living organism. As a matter of fact, EU standards on bio-based plastic content only include as a recommendation a bio-based content level of 25 per cent.

Labelling requirements must clearly indicate the real fraction of bio-based material and cover its full environmental impacts and not simply signal the origin of the plastic feedstock.

No shortcut for bioplastics: ecodesign remains the key

The pollution and resource depletion crises we face today are due to the overconsumption and linearity of the use of plastics and other material resources. These crises cannot be addressed with a simple substitution of conventional plastics with bio-based, biodegradable or compostable options: we must drastically reduce all material uses and move towards waste-minimising solutions and ecodesign.

Ecodesign includes avoiding the use of material altogether, making products last longer, enabling reuse and repair and choosing the lowest-impact and best-suited material for the product across its lifecycle. Reasoned use of bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics can have its place among these solutions, but it cannot be seen as a panacea: like other plastics and materials – bioplastics must be designed and produced with material efficiency, safety and circularity in mind. One more time: ecodesign is key to making sustainable products the norm.

The new policy framework should continue to enforce circularity principles and the waste hierarchy: prevention, reuse and recycling – in this order of priority.

Finally, to the question: do BBP/BDCP actually lead to genuine environmental benefits? One thing goes without saying: the most sustainable product is the one that has not been produced. If a product is needed, then the question is whether the bioplastic product offers better performance than other solutions (such as using different materials and design); regarding climate impacts, circularity, risks to human health and biodiversity, as well as how its production affects land use and food security, how it contributes to social peace and welfare and how much other resources are depleted or polluted as a result. When comparing bioplastics specifically to fossil-based plastics, the impacts of bioplastics seem at best only marginally better than that of their fossil counterpart and at times worse.

This opinion editorial first appeared on ECOS and was reprinted with the permission of the author.

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