Waste management and recovery options for bioplastics

Bioplastics are suitable for a broad range of end-of-life options, including reuse, mechanical recycling, organic recycling, and energy recovery. The overwhelming part of the bioplastic volume produced today can easily be recycled alongside their conventional counterparts where separate recycling streams for certain material types exist (e.g. biobased PE in the PE-stream or biobased PET in the PET-stream). This way, bioplastics contribute to higher recycling quotas in the EU and the implementation of the circular economy.

Furthermore, using biodegradable and compostable plastic products such as (biowaste) bags, food packaging, and cutlery strengthens industrial composting (organic recycling) as a waste management option and helps to increase waste management efficiency. If bioplastics can no longer be reused or recycled, it is nevertheless possible to use them in the production of bio-energy.

As with conventional plastics, the manner in which bioplastics waste is actually recovered depends on the type of product and bioplastics material used, the inherent quantities and the recovery systems available.

European Bioplastics does not support any statements that advertise bioplastics as a solution to the littering problems. Littering refers to careless discarding of waste and is not a legitimate means of disposal.

Biodegradable plastics are often regarded as a possible solution to this problem as they can be decomposed by micro-organisms without producing harmful or noxious residue during decomposition. However, the process of biodegradation is dependent on certain environmental conditions. Products suitable for industrial composting (as defined according to the EN 13432 standard) are fit for the conditions in a composting plant, but not for those outside in nature.

It is imperative for the consumer to continue to be conscious of the fact that no matter what type of packaging, it must be subject to appropriate disposal and recovery processes. Landfilling is a hurdle to resource efficiency. Even though it is still one of the main disposal options in many countries in Europe, continual progress towards a phase-out can be observed. In 2014, around 31 percent of plastic waste went to landfills, 7 percent less compared to 2012. European Bioplastics supports a European-wide ban on landfilling for plastic products and supports any measures in order to increase recycling and recovery of plastics waste.

Biodegradable/Compostable plastics in the marine environment:
Marine litter is one of the main threats to the environment. The largest share of marine litter consists of plastics that originate from a variety of sources, including shipping activities, ineffectively managed landfills, and public littering. The persistence of the majority of these plastics poses the biggest problem to the (marine) environment if not properly disposed of.

In areas where separate biowaste collection exists, compostable biowaste bags can help divert biowaste – including the bags in which it is collected – from landfills, thereby reducing the amount of plastic bags entering into the marine environment in the first place. Yet, biodegradable plastics should not be considered a solution to the problem of marine litter. Littering should never be promoted or accepted for any kind of waste, neither on land nor at sea – including all varieties of plastics. Instead, the issue needs to be addressed by educative and informative measures to raise awareness for proper and controlled ways of management, disposal, and (organic) recycling.

Currently, there is no international standard available that appropriately describes the biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment. However, a number of standardization projects are in progress at ISO and ASTM level on how to measure marine biodegradation.

For more information, see our position paper on marine litter.

Find more comprehensive information on the waste management options for bioplastics in our fact sheet on the ‘end of life options’ as well as our position paper on the EU Cirular Economy Proposal.