Biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels and if not properly managed at their end of life, can accumulate in the environment. This contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Alternative plastics, such as biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics may be a more sustainable alternative to fossil-based, non-biodegradable plastics. However, they also present their own sustainability challenges and trade-offs that must be carefully assessed and considered.
The European Commission adopted a policy framework on the sourcing, labelling and use of biobased plastics, and the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics. This was announced in the European Green Deal, circular economy action plan, and plastics strategy.
This EU policy framework for biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics aims to contribute to a sustainable plastics economy by
- improving the understanding around these materials and clarify where these plastics can bring genuine environmental benefits, under which conditions and applications
- guiding citizens, public authorities and businesses in their policy, purchasing or investing decisions
- preventing differences at national level and fragmentation of the market by promoting a shared understanding across the EU on the production and use of these plastics
What are biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics?
There is widespread confusion among consumers about these different types of plastics. The umbrella term “bioplastics” is often used to describe very different materials, and the terms “biobased”, “biodegradable” and “compostable” may be misleading.
Biobased plastics are fully or partially made from biological resources, rather than fossil raw materials. They are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable. It is important to examine the full life cycle of biobased plastics, to ensure that they are beneficial to the environment beyond the reduction in use of fossil resources. This includes changes in land use.
Biodegradable plastics biodegrade in certain conditions at their end of life. Compostable plastics – a subset of biodegradable ones – typically decompose in industrial composting facilities, and first need to be collected. Biodegradable and compostable plastics may be made from biological resources or fossil raw materials. These plastics should be used when it is not possible to reduce, reuse or recycle, in line with the circular economy and waste hierarchy principles.
‘Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment’ – Scientific Opinion of the Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors