The push to overhaul the use of conventional plastics with bio-based and/or biodegradable alternatives is supported by many multi-national companies, particularly in the various consumer goods industries.

Therefore, international standardization of the bioplastic packaging or (single use) product content is seemingly foreseeable, if not inevitable. However, recent legal initiatives looking into this previously unregulated sector suggest bioplastics specifications will be based upon actual recovery in the communities in which they are waste-managed, turning a global development into a very local concern.

European Union (E.U.) mandates performance proof for biodegradable plastics (BDP)

The European Commission (EC) has been actively investigating the value of bioplastics under various end-of-life processes in an effort to capture the actual movement of such materials within Europe. In December 2020, the EC issued Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment, containing recommendations by an independent scientific advisory group looking at the performance of BDPswhere no dedicated processing (such as in-vessel composting) has been applied.

The recommendations constrain the promotion of BDP and require performance verification based upon the particular waste management environments in which they are processed. These recommendations include:

  • Supporting the development of testing and certification schemes evaluating actual biodegradation of BDP in the context of their application in a specific receiving open environment;
  • Required assessment of biodegradation and environmental risk of BDP under the conditions of specific open environments; and
  • Supporting the development of a materials catalogue and their relative biodegradation rates in a range of environments.

As the EC is aware from its ongoing assessment of compostable/biodegradable plastic packaging standard CEN 13432, processing of waste, even industrial composting activities, differs among E.U. members, making the “specific open environment” a domestic designation at best.

Japan places biomass at centre of bioplastics strategy

Similarly, Japan recently issued a Bioplastic Introduction Roadmap specifically tied to growth of “sustainable bioplastics” driven by a national plastic resource recycling strategy. The roadmap focuses on switching from fossil fuel to biomass-based polymers, specifically plant-derived inputs, reflecting the availability of local resources.

Manufacturers of products using plastics, such as containers and packaging, plastic shopping bags, electrical and electronic equipment, clothing, footwear, furniture and toys, are to introduce biomass content into their products, with the coincident growth of recycling infrastructure to match this material profile. Concerns over international compostability standards and certifications are secondary to Japanese resources and their recovery.

Canada looks at aerobic/anaerobic bioplastic performance

The country’s Zero Waste Plastic Initiative is funding an assessment of the performance of certain “compostable” bioplastics in both aerobic and anaerobic organic waste facilities, recognizing that plastic waste frequently contaminates organic waste streams, particularly residential source-separated “green bin” organics. In doing so, locally-demonstrated resource recovery is prioritized over international bioplastics standards:

While national and international certification standards exist, meeting those standards does not necessarily ensure that Compostables can be properly managed after reception of the source separated organics, including Compostables, at Ontario’s aerobic composting or anaerobic digestion facilities.

A similar study was funded last year by the EC and found the demonstrated value of compostable plastics in these processes to be “sparse and inconclusive”.

Bottom-up waste management over top-down product standards

While there are significant growth projections for bioplastics and plans for further standards developments, such as under the EU Circular Economy Action Plan 2020, obtaining product certification under an international regime will not necessarily mean acceptance in any domestic market. Instead, demonstrable performance of the bioplastic within existing local waste management infrastructure will ultimately be needed.