Biodegradable plastics in open environment

Chalmers University of Technology

Plastic pollution is a worldwide problem and biodegradable plastics can play a part to reduce the waste. But there is a risk that the term biodegradable plastics can lead to confusion for policymakers and customers, since most biodegradable plastics are designed to degrade only in special industrial composting facilities. A report has now been published that gives a scientific view on the use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment.

​Biodegradable plastics can only help solving the growing plastic waste problem if it’s handled the way it was designed. A perspective here is to label as biodegradable if it can be fully broken down by microorganism. Such full biodegradability is not always the case with conventional biodegradable plastics. The effectiveness of biodegradable plastics is highly dependent on the environmental conditions. If the necessary microorganisms and other circumstances such as the right temperature is missing, then the plastic will not degrade in a reasonable time period. Most biodegradable plastics today cannot just be left in an open environment for degradation. So, it is very important to understand that biodegradable plastic will not automatically solve the plastic waste problem, but it can be part of the solution if managed correctly.

Policy recommendations on biodegradable plastics

The report Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment, written by a Group of Chief Scientific Advisors based on scientific evidence reviewed by the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies, gives several policy recommendations. First is limiting the use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment to specific applications for which reduction, reuse, and recycling are not feasible. Second, the report wants to see support for the development of coherent testing and certification standards for biodegradation of plastics in the open environment. Thirdly it is also necessary to promote the supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of biodegradable plastic to relevant user groups.
Antal BoldizarProfessor Antal Boldizar, researching on environmentally adapted engineering polymers at Chalmers University of Technology, is one of the working group members in the advisory board that produced the report.
Who do you think should read this report and why?
As this report gives a rather broad perspective on the aspects of biodegradable plastics, I think it could be of general interest for many readers. The specific purpose was, however, to give a scientific input to the European Commission as a support for a new framework on biodegradable plastics, says Antal Boldizar.
What is the most important thing to think of when it comes to biodegradable plastic, in your opinion?
The most important message, I think, is that biodegradable plastics have a role to play in reducing the accumulating of plastics in the open environment – but only in some specific applications. In other cases, including single-use packaging and plastic bags, it would likely be better to reduce the amount of plastic we use, to re-use it, recycle it, or, where we can, compost it in industrial plants, says Antal.

About SAPEA

SAPEA is part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism. The report is part of the Scientific Advice Mechanism that gives independent scientific advice to the European Commission.
SAPEA has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 737432
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