Q&a: EU Communication Paper on Policy Framework for Biobased, Biodegradable and composted Plastics

  • 2022-12-03
Q1: Why did the European Commission present today's communication?

A: Biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics are appearing in our everyday lives as alternatives to conventional (fossil-based and non-biodegradable) plastics. They are used in packaging, consumer goods and textiles, among other sectors.

It's easy to think of them as environmentally friendly because they're named "creatures." This is true to a certain extent, but only if certain sustainability conditions are met.

Today's communication aims to improve understanding of these materials and clarify where these plastics can deliver real environmental benefits: under what conditions and in what applications. By doing so, it aims to guide the policy, purchase or investment decisions of citizens, public authorities and business operators. A common understanding of the production and use of these plastics across the EU would also prevent differences at national level and fragmentation of the market.


Question 2: What does the communication document propose?

A: The document brings greater clarity to biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics and spells out the conditions to ensure that their production and consumption have a positive impact on the environment. To do this, products labeled "biobased," "biodegradable," or "compostable" need to meet key conditions:

For 'bio-based', the term should only be used if an accurate and measurable share of the content of bio-based plastics in the product is specified, so that consumers know how much biomass is actually used in the product. In addition, the biomass used must come from sustainable sources and be environmentally sound. These plastics should be sourced in accordance with sustainability standards. Producers should give priority to organic waste and residues.

For "biodegradation", it should be clear that such products should not be littering, and it should stipulate how long the product needs to be biodegraded, under what circumstances and in what environment (e.g. soil, water, etc.). Products that are likely to be discarded, including those covered by the single-use Plastics directive, cannot be claimed or labelled as biodegradable.

For "compostable", only industrially compostable plastics that meet the relevant standards should be labelled "compostable". Industrial compostable packaging should demonstrate the disposal of items. Compostable plastics are difficult to fully biodegrade in household compost. Plastic household compost not covered by EU rules should be considered under specific local conditions, under the supervision of the authorities, provided that the use of such plastics has a clear added value.

In addition, unsubstantiated generic claims about these plastics (i.e., "bioplastic", "biobased", "biodegradable") should be banned in line with the Commission's recommendations to empower consumers to make the green transition.


Q3: What does the new policy framework mean for consumers?

A. They bring more clarity and trust. Consumers expect real environmental benefits from these plastics. They were told that they are also required to correct use and disposal, such as reports (https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2779/126536) today and communication documents published together. In this case, consumers should be told, for example, that biodegradable plastic is not a license to litter: any plastic that gets littered and gets into the open environment has the potential to damage it and increase microplastic pollution. In the case of industrial compostable plastics (i.e. plastics designed to decompose in industrial composting facilities), such packaging should use a pictograph to show its disposal, as described in today's proposal for a regulation on packaging and Packaging waste.

Avoiding general statements about plastic products such as "bioplastics" will help combat greenwashing and avoid misleading consumers.

Q4: How does the initiative contribute to the EU's strategic autonomy in the use of key raw materials and energy?

A: The use of biomass from sustainable sources, especially organic waste and residue, can partially replace fossil fuels in the chemical and derived materials industries, such as plastics. In this sense, it is a way to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels and increase the EU's strategic autonomy to open up. But when bioplastics come from plants that are specifically used as feedstocks (sugar, grains or vegetable oils), rather than organic waste or by-products, these plastics compete for land.

When using primary biomass, it is important to ensure that it is environmentally sustainable and that its production does not harm biodiversity or ecosystem health.

In line with the objective of a circular economy and the principle of tiered use of biomass, the Commission encourages producers to prioritize the use of organic waste and by-products as feedstocks, minimizing the use of primary biomass and avoiding major environmental impacts.

Q5: How does the programme fit in with the 2019 Single-use Plastics Directive?

(https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/dir/2019/904/oj)

A: By clarifying these materials, this initiative helps to properly implement the single-use plastics directive. Products that may be discarded (including those covered by the Single-use Plastics Directive) cannot be labelled as biodegradable.

Q6: How does this initiative complement the plastic bag directive?

A: When implementing the plastic bag directive, Member States were obliged to take measures to reduce the use of lightweight plastic shopping bags. Some member States have exempted plastic bags with biodegradable/compostable properties from their consumption reduction measures. Today's newsletter provides guidelines on sustainability in the use and disposal of biodegradable and compostable plastics, including for bag applications.

For example, the communication notes that industrial compostable plastic bags for biological waste separation collection are an example of the beneficial use of compostable plastics. These bags can reduce plastic pollution from compost as opposed to non-biodegradable plastic bags, which are a pollution problem in biowaste disposal systems. Of course, in line with the principle of circular economy, the total amount of plastic bags should still be reduced to a minimum.

Q7: What is the link between the communication paper on the policy framework for biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics and the eco-design requirements for sustainable products?

A: Communication documents help to develop eco-design requirements for sustainable products.

For example, the initiative sets out the basic factors to consider when designing these plastics: the share of biobased plastic components used and the sustainability of the source of the biobased plastic; The proper use and disposal of biodegradable and compostable plastics, and the conditions and time frame required for biodegradation.

Overall, the initiative encourages more recycled plastics - reusing all ingredients, including bio-based ones, for as long as possible remains a core priority. Eco-design requirements should also take into account that the communication encourages the use of secondary rather than primary feedstock whenever possible, including bio-based materials.

Q8: What does the newsletter mean for the industry?

A: This communication document is expected to guide the industry's future choices:

Before placing bio-based plastics on the market, value chains should ensure that the percentage of their biomass content is clearly specified and that the sources of these plastics are sustainable;

To this end, producers should prioritize the use of well-managed organic wastes and by-products over primary biomass; They should also ensure that these plastics meet sustainability standards similar to those used in the bioenergy sector. Methods for assessing the impact of biobased plastics relative to fossil-based plastics from a life cycle perspective are still being developed.

Before placing biodegradable or compostable plastics on the market, the industry needs to consider the entire system: material properties, the receiving environment (i.e., soil, water), the time frame required for biodegradation, and consumer behavior.

For biodegradable and compostable plastics, producers should focus their investments only on applications where the use of this plastic has a real environmental benefit.

Biodegradable plastics have advantages in situations where conventional plastics cannot be completely removed, collected and recycled. This is the case, for example, with mulch used in agriculture, provided they are shown to meet the appropriate standards.

Compostable plastics have the advantages of protecting compost from plastic pollution and increasing bio-waste collection in applications. This is the case, for example, with tea and filtered coffee bags, fruit and vegetable stickers, and very light plastic shopping bags, although no packaged alternatives or reusable alternatives are preferred.

Additives used to make biodegradable (or compostable plastic) should be safely biodegradable and environmentally sound. It should be disclosed to retailers, users and the public.

The European Commission will continue to promote research and innovation on these plastics in order to address the ongoing technical challenges associated with their production, use and disposal.

Q8: How will this communication affect small and medium-sized companies?

A: This document provides guidance to citizens, public authorities and all relevant economic operators in their policy, purchase or investment decisions. It will direct smes to invest in applications that are most environmentally and socially beneficial. If an SME faces technical or process challenges related to the production, use or disposal of these plastics, it can apply for research and innovation funding, but the sustainability principles of this initiative will also apply to smes.

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