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Recycling

Biodegradation Is Not a Sustainable Silver Bullet

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Sustainable packaging expert Robert Lilienfeld responds to a scientific opinion on biodegradable plastics published by the European Commission (EC).

Some of you may remember that in February of last year I wrote a piece for sister publication PlasticsToday entitled Top Eight Things to Know about Biodegradable Packaging. It stated that biodegradable plastics were a complex undertaking that would not be the silver bullet that many marketers and packaging designers were hoping they would become.

 

Well, about a month ago the European Commission (EC) published the Scientific Opinion on the Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment. Because of all the news relating to the pandemic and politics during this time, the opinion has received very little attention. This is too bad, because it will set the direction of both regulatory and business activity in Europe, and therefore in North America as well (only a little bit later).

The opinion can be summed up in four well-written sentences from the EU press release and the article itself, as quoted here:

  1. "The Advisors therefore recommend limiting the use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment to specific applications for which reduction, reuse, and recycling are not feasible, rather than as a solution for inappropriate waste management or littering."
  2. "There is also a need to promote the supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of biodegradable plastics and their applications to relevant user groups.”
  3. “To realize the potential environmental benefits over conventional plastics, they (the authors) recommend supporting the development of coherent testing and certification standards.”
  4. “It is important to ensure that consumers are provided with clear and correct information, and to make sure that biodegradable plastics are not put forward as a solution to littering.”

What that means for your plans.

These conclusions are very much in line with the points I made almost a year ago. Further, they lead one to consider some rather game-changing implications:

  1. Biodegradable plastics do not offer widespread sustainable packaging solutions, but instead should be considered primarily for applications where recycling and reusing are not viable options. These include agricultural uses such as mulch film, where the product could conceivably be turned over or buried in the field; and foodservice, where finished packaging can be successfully mixed with food waste and sent to industrial compost facilities. (Note that local weather and business conditions will significantly affect the opportunities for these types of potentially compostable products, even within these application areas.)
    The EC opinion appears to remove biodegradable/compostable packaging from Circular Economy consideration. In my opinion, this is correct: Biodegradable packaging does not produce compost or any other reusable feedstock. What it does produce is water vapor and greenhouse gases. Thus, marketers and brand owners need to stop referring to biodegradable packaging as part of the Circular Economy.
  2. The opinion thus clearly points to the superiority of the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management approach as a strategic underpinning for making sustainable packaging decisions. Many people have been saying this for quite some time, but it’s ironic that a European agency has come to the same conclusion.
    What this means is that most consumer packaged goods brands and converters should be putting their packaging focus on four areas: material and energy reduction, use of recyclable materials, inclusion of recycled content, and integration of polymers made from renewable resources. Leave the biodegradable polymers and additives to farmers and foodservice professionals.

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. Reach him at bob.lilienfeld@gmail.com.

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