EuRIC's Position on the Impacts of Biodegradable Plastics on Circularity
In regard to the forthcoming Commission’s policy framework, related to bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, EuRIC is pleased to share its position about biodegradable plastics, especially on packaging, and with this document help to clarify some questions regarding the impact and challenges of these plastic types on mechanical recycling (incl. opportunities and recommendations).
Nowadays, fossil-based plastics account for the biggest market share and correct plastic management of this common plastics through mechanical recycling offers an opportunity for material circularity - with still a lot of untapped potential1- while curbing plastic waste and minimizing environmental pollution and combating global warming.
As an alternative to solve plastic waste accumulation through recycling, which applies for both fossil-based and bio-based plastics, there are materials in the market like biodegradable plastics (BDPs), especially used in packaging applications, which aim to tackle the problem of plastic waste accumulation at the production phase. However, and despite the fact that BDPs can theoretically shorten the life cycle of plastics, due to lack of infrastructure and a misconception by the consumer about what biodegradability means, most of BDPs are not properly disposed at their end-of-life (EoL) and they are mixed with traditional plastics. This creates a negative impact on the efficiency of conventional plastic sorting systems across EU and jeopardizes recyclates quality because BDPs - contrary to bio-based plastics - do not fit in the sorting and recycling infrastructure and therefore they do not contribute to but hamper transitioning towards a circular economy for plastics. Therefore, BDPs should not be considered as a silver bullet to the plastic waste problem but just as another waste to be properly managed. Even when BDPs are properly disposed at their EoL, problems may rise during composting, which is the reason BDPs are not allowed in the bio-waste of many Member States. As a consequence, BDPs from packaging are removed from the bio-waste and incinerated at waste to energy plants.
For the correct functioning of the circular economy, it is EuRIC’s recommendation that all plastic products must be designed according to the design-for-recycling principles, which means that the collection, sorting and recycling of the material must be possible within the existing infrastructure and this needs to be determined by extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. For BDPs or other new types of polymers of which their production is more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics, it is necessary to manage their EoL in an efficient manner to effectively protect the circular economy and the environment because, unless very limited exceptions, right now, choosing for BDPs in the name of environmental protection is just wishful thinking.
1 In Europe, approximately 29 million tonnes of plastic waste were collected in 2018, from which around 9 million tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste were sent to recycling.