In preparation for the upcoming EU Plastics Strategy, the European Commission hosted the Stakeholder Conference ‘Reinventing Plastics – Closing the Circle’ on Tuesday, 26 September 2017, to engage with relevant stakeholders and gather feedback and input for the on-going process of drafting the plastics strategy. European Bioplastics (EUBP), the association representing the interests of the bioplastics industry in Europe, was invited to provide insights and comments regarding the potentials and challenges of bioplastics and their contributions to a circular economy in Europe.
EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, said that the EU Plastics Strategy will focus on addressing three specific challenges: 1) to reduce the use of fossil-based feedstocks and shifting towards domestically available feedstocks; 2) to boost the market for secondary raw materials; and 3) to reduce the environmental impact of plastics by focussing on sustainable design.
Mobilise benefits of alternative feedstock
EUBP welcomes the priority the Commission has given to assess how to decarbonise the plastics economy in the plastics strategy. In a conference session dedicated to discuss the sustainable solutions provided by bio-based plastics, Kristy-Barbara Lange, Deputy Managing Director of European Bioplastics, stressed that by replacing a significant proportion of the conventional fossil-based feedstock by certified bio-based alternatives, bioplastics can help to reduce our dependency on imported fossil resources and help to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals and EU climate protection targets.
The mobilisation of EU-grown biomass would provide the opportunity to EU farmers to valorise side streams and by-products and to tap additional revenue streams. Having reached a mature level with regard to materials, applications, standards and sustainability assessment, EUBP called on the Commission to consider the use of domestically available biomass for the production of industrial products and to boost investments into the infrastructure of bio-refineries.
Market push and pull measures will be crucial to drive this transition, which needs to be encouraged by concrete legislative action such as EPR (extended producers responsibility) rules for recycled and bio-based content, long-term carbon taxation for recycled and bio-based content, requirements for a minimum bio-based and recycled content in plastic product designs connected to Green Public Procurement, or incremental minimum content targets as done in the recent French Energy Transition law.
Design for circularity
Applying the principles of a circular economy from the design stage of bioplastic materials offers a competitive edge for the bioplastics industry. Bio-based plastics have the unique advantage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By replacing the fossil content in plastics with plant-based content, carbon is taken from the atmosphere and bound in the material. These bio-based materials are then used to manufacture a broad range of products with a potentially neutral or even negative carbon footprint, many of which are durable and can be reused or easily recycled many times. First certification schemes for sustainable sourcing of feedstocks do already exist and are crucial for the use of biomass for industrial products until harmonised sustainable criteria have been developed in Europe.
Bioplastics can also make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through a closed resource cycle and use cascades, especially if biobased materials and products are being either reused or recycled. Bioplastics are suitable for a broad range of end-of-life options. The overwhelming part of the volumes of bioplastics produced today is mechanically recycled. Bio-based drop-in plastics, such as bio-based PE or bio-based PET, make up the major share of today’s bioplastics production (about 75%) and are recyclable alongside their conventional counterparts in existing recycling streams.
No circular economy without separate waste collection
One important fact that has been rather neglected in the consultations around the upcoming plastics strategy up until now is the need to implement separate waste collection. In order to achieve higher mechanical recycling targets, improve the quality of recyclates, and to increase waste management efficiency altogether, the implementation of separate collection and build up of mechanic and organic recycling streams is key. Bio-waste represents 40-50% of the municipal waste streams in Europe but only about 25% are separately collected and organically recycled at the moment. Around 100 million tonnes annually are ‘wasted’ across the EU and lost as a valuable resource. At the same time, mechanical recycling streams carry the burden of dealing with contamination. Sound separate collection of bio-waste and corresponding treatment supported by a selection of certified compostable plastic applications, can solve this situation. Key applications in this context are e.g. biowaste bags and packaging for perishable food products. Providing these solutions for the collection of bio-waste will also help to reduce the contamination of bio-waste with conventional, non-biodegradable plastics. Therefore, a corresponding link between mechanic recycling and the interdependency regarding bio-waste collection and treatment should be included in the upcoming EU Plastics Strategy.
When discussing biodegradation of plastics and the circular economy today, the Plastics Strategy should focus on organic recycling (industrial composting and anaerobic digestion) as an existing and proven concept. Harmonised and accepted standards, certification schemes, and labels for industrial compostable plastics already exist and have been proven successful for more than 15 years.
Biodegradability in the environment
Biodegradability in other environments (other than industrial composting or anaerobic digestion), however, should only be considered for a limited number of carefully selected applications. To suggest a general requirement of marine biodegradability for all single-use items raises a series of ethical questions (particularly on changing consumption and littering habits), neglects the circular principle, and deflects attention away from what we really need to focus on: implementing efficient waste management infrastructures throughout Europe and increasing efforts on education and information on proper waste management in accordance with the waste hierarchy. The Plastics Strategy’s focus on leakage in the environment in connection to biodegradability should reflect these considerations and make suggestions how to further drive discussion and research on this aspect.