Precautionary approach needed on biodegradable plastics, says Rethink Plastic alliance

The European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism has published today a new report on biodegradability of plastics in the open environment, commissioned by the European Commission as part of its promise to prepare for and develop a framework on bioplastics, to empower EU citizens in the green transition and protect them from greenwashing.

In the past two decades, “bioplastics” have increasingly been promoted as a solution to many of the challenges caused by conventional plastics. In this context, the 2018 EU Plastics Strategy itself had set out a cautious approach, applauded by the Rethink Plastic alliance, for the use of biodegradable plastics as it identified a number of concerning challenges associated with their uptake: “It is important to ensure that consumers are provided with clear and correct information, and to make sure that biodegradable plastics are not put forward as a solution to littering”. An approach that was confirmed in the Directive on single use plastics and fishing gear which makes no distinction between conventional, non-biodegradable plastics and biodegradable plastics, capturing them all in its ambition to phase out the most polluting single-use plastics.

Reacting to the release of this new report, Gaëlle Haut, EU Affairs Project Manager at Surfrider Foundation Europe said  “Biodegradable plastics are single use and still plastics. Far from being the ‘silver bullet’, they bring with them a series of issues, misrepresentations, greenwashing and hidden impacts, notably on marine life and habitats. We are very pleased to see this recognised in the SAPEA report in addition to the recommendation that biodegradable plastics should be limited to specific uses for which reduction, reuse and recycling are not possible. Yet, we’re strongly concerned the report outlines bioplastics as being possibly a solution to plastic pollution and states these plastics do not harm the environment, a statement we clearly object to”.

The market pull effect of openly supporting the wide development of biodegradability testing and standards should not be underestimated. This can lead to the dramatic increase in products designed for biodegradation in the open environment at the global level.” added Ioana Popescu, Senior Programme Manager at ECOS. “This not only sends the message that it is ok to throw a plastic product into the natural environment, it also bears considerable risk of impacting natural habitats as biodegradation times in the open environment vary and can take up to 2 years in ideal laboratory conditions.”

“It is currently too easy for bioplastic manufacturers to push their products towards consumers through the use of misleading labels on single-use products such as “compostable” cutlery, beverage cups and food containers. This is against the spirit of the recent single-use plastic Directive and should stop for greener alternatives to be promoted, such as durable and reusable products.” added Frédérique Mongodin, Senior Marine Litter Policy Officer at Seas At Risk.

On biodegradable and bio-based plastics, the Rethink Plastic alliance believes upcoming initiatives on sustainable products, green claims, on the use of bio-based plastics, and biodegradable or compostable plastics and the revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive provide an opportunity to:

1. Prioritise material reduction and reuse over substitution of one single-use item with another, for example by setting sectoral reuse targets.

2. Set strong criteria and conditions for the sourcing and use of bio-based and biodegradable plastics fully acknowledging and taking into account all their externalities.

3. Harmonise the definitions and strengthen consumer protection against greenwashing on plastics: set clear definitions of bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, and regulate the use of marketing green claims such as “bioplastics”, “biodegradable”, “compostable” and any qualitative claims linked to the environment, including on feedstock source, biodegradability and compostability through a pre-approval process.

4. Introduce clear and ambitious requirements into EU standards on industrial compostability, home compostability and biodegradability for example that reflect real-life conditions and do not adversely impact natural ecosystems.

For more information, please read our full infographic on bioplastics.

NOTES:

[1] Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA). (2020). Evidence Review Report. Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment. Berlin: SAPEA. doi:10.26356/biodegradabilityplastics

[2] Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. Scientific Advice Mechanism (2020). Scientific Opinion. Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment. 

[3] Rethink Plastic (November 2020). Plastic Fake Out: Falling into the trap of Bioplastics.

[4] Rethink Plastic (July 2018). Why bioplastics won’t solve the plastic crisis.

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