“Scepticism of stakeholders towards the relevance of biodegradable-certified compostable plastics in a circular economy usually stems from a vague notion about what these materials and corresponding products can actually contribute to efficient waste management.”
Material producers should focus on creating bio-based plastics that can be mechanically recycled and not promote biodegradable or compostable plastics because they only provide sustainable benefits in very specific applications, according to European waste industry trade body FEAD.
The trade body made the statement in its recently published position paper on biodegradable and bio-based plastics and their impacts on the waste stream.
In its paper issued earlier this month, FEAD said that using resources to make packaging material that ends up in the bio-waste stream (single-use products) “is not circular since the biodegradable and compostable plastics are either sorted out and sent to waste incinerators or are transformed into water and CO2 and leave the loop”.
However, FEAD said the recycling of bio-based plastics is circular and for this reason the organisation wants to encourage produces to create bio-based products that can be recycled.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics can only bring environmental benefits when there is “a clear co-benefit: separating more bio-waste from residual waste and when they do not degrade the quality of organic waste”, FEAD said.
The difficulty of distinguishing between biodegradable and compostable plastics and conventional plastics, even when correctly disposed of by households, meant they were likely to be sent for incineration or disposal, FEAD added.
The publication of the paper comes as the use of alternative to fossil fuel-based plastic are being adopted by many food and drink companies, cafes, takeaway coffee venues, cafes and retailers.
According to FEAD, the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics also leads to confusion amongst consumers and creates new risks to both the environment and industry.
Public perceptions on the term “biodegradable” can remove people’s waste management responsibility, consequently leading to an increase of littering, FEAD’s paper stated. For example, if a plastic bag is labelled “biodegradable”, users might think that leaving it in the open environment is an acceptable solution, and littering would increase.
FEAD also focused on a reportedly potential contamination of mechanical recycling streams with compostable plastics and warned that it was “important that biodegradable and compostable plastics are not used in products that can end up in recyclable plastics, as consumers cannot be expected to see the difference between biodegradable and compostable and non-biodegradable plastics”.
It said the promotion and marketing of biodegradable and compostable plastics to the public “at this stage is premature”.
European Bioplastics, which represents the bioplastics industry, has slammed FEAD’s paper and said that “FEAD displays an incomplete perception on how a circular economy can be achieved”.
European Bioplastics quoted a 2017 study published by the University of Wageningen that found that biodegradable plastics in mechanical recycling streams accounted for 0.3%.
It added: “Unfortunately, the association (FEAD) exclusively focuses on mechanical recycling while at the same time refusing biodegradable plastic solutions. Scepticism of stakeholders towards the relevance of biodegradable-certified compostable plastics in a circular economy usually stems from a vague notion about what these materials and corresponding products can actually contribute to efficient waste management.”
In a response to European Bioplastics’ statement, Valérie Plainemaison from FEAD and French member of FNADE, told Bio Market Insights that compostables can pose a problem when it gets into the waste stream.
She explained: “They [European Bioplastics] indicate that compostable plastics are not a problem because they account for only 0.3% of plastics going to mechanical recycling. A COTREP ((France’s Technical Committee for the Recycling of Plastic Packaging) study shows that 0.1% PLA degrades the colour and opacifies the rPET and therefore leads to a downgrade: it is the marketers themselves that say this, not us!
“Dilution is not a solution, as the subject of opaque PET has shown.”
FEAD is the latest in a long line of organisations to criticise the promotion of compostables in recent weeks.
A committee of MPs in the UK recently criticised the material, stating that the use of ‘industrially’ compostable packaging should not be promoted because the waste management infrastructure to deal with it was “not fit for purpose”.
Environmental NGOs giving evidence to the committee also claimed that the rapid introduction of such alternatives could actually increase plastic pollution.
However, in response to the committee’s claims, the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), said: “People who criticise compostable packaging do not understand their role. It is a niche role, but significant in helping solve these issues around food and soil. These are critical issues for production of food, 95% of which is produced on soil.”