Project News: SEALIVE Roundtable on Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics and Waste Management

On 10 February 2022, SEALIVE hosted a stakeholder roundtable exploring the interaction between biodegradable and compostable plastics and different aspects of waste management. Around 25 participants from across Europe participated. Here the SEALIVE‘s policy team, IEEP, ISOTECH and ATKI, reflect on the insights shared during the meeting.  

Waste management is a complex issue – technically and for policy. Different waste streams are managed (collected, sorted, processed, etc.) in different ways across different parts of the EU and across the world. New objectives and targets are being adopted and new techniques are being applied. Importantly, the challenge for waste management has moved from choosing the disposal route with the least environmental impact to seeking methods to maximise the reuse of materials within a circular economy. This has changed how we view and value materials.

Plastics are a huge challenge for the operation of the circular economy. Many plastic products have been designed to be cheap, light and easily disposable. Design for recycling has, until very recently, not been a consideration for many plastic products. However, the importance of recycling plastics has grown and, as a result, the recycling of plastics in the EU has improved significantly in recent years, though the majority of waste plastics are still landfilled or incinerated. So, what needs to be done to develop a proper circular plastics economy (reduction, reuse, recycling)?

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are newer types of plastics and, interact with waste management in different ways. Both biodegradable and compostable plastics are designed to degrade through the action of micro-organisms. However, the interaction of these two types of plastic with waste management is different.

Biodegradable plastics aim to degrade in an open environment. However, what happens if they become included in waste streams? Are they contaminants? Can they be recycled? Are they easily separated? These questions and whether biodegradable plastics are contaminants in plastics recycling streams were discussed at the SEALIVE roundtable. Currently, the levels of biodegradable plastics in recycling waste are low. However, it is possible to separate these polymers and, at least for some, it is possible to recycle them. As plastics recycling improves, the presence of biodegradable plastics should not be a problem.

Compostable plastics have an important role to play in managing bio-waste. Currently, in the EU about 40% of bio-waste is treated to produce compost. The Waste Framework Directive requires a separate collection of bio-waste by the end of 2023, so there is a big drive to improve its management. To do this, it is necessary to make it easier for producers of bio-waste (e.g. households) to contain and separate that waste and make it easy for collection. Compostable plastics can facilitate bio-waste management. They provide easy ways for householders to collect waste and for it to be collected by waste collection services. The roundtable discussed how the use of compostable plastics can be improved, referring in particular to Italy, which has a longer and more extensive experience in their use than the other EU Member States.

Stakeholders at the roundtable noted that good plastics recycling and good management of bio-waste (including the use of compostable bags) requires good understanding by householders. The potential for information on product labels or from waste authorities to be over complex was highlighted and, therefore, the need for this to be both clear and simple is important.

The results of the discussions at the roundtable will be used within the research being undertaken in SEALIVE and to produce policy briefings that will support further the use of biomaterials and contribute to the circular economy.


Published 10/03/2022 | Last edited 10/03/2022

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