SCIENCE ADVICE FOR POLICY
BY EUROPEAN ACADEMIES

Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment

Plastic pollution is a worldwide problem, and it is still growing. Each year, more and more plastic ends up in the natural environment, raising concerns of risk to the environment, animal and human health.

Biodegradable plastics have a specific role to play in reducing the accumulation of plastics in the environment.

Replacing conventional plastic with biodegradable plastic can help with applications in the open environment — such as agriculture and fisheries, or plastics in fireworks — and where it is difficult or expensive to remove it from the environment. Biodegradable plastics that are designed for industrial composting can also bring benefits in a waste system that is well-managed to ensure this happens.

But biodegradable plastics are not a ‘silver bullet’ to solve the problem of plastic pollution. For the majority of applications, including most single-use packaging and plastic bags, it would be better to reduce the amount of plastic we use, or to promote reuse and recycling.

What does ‘biodegradable plastic’ mean?

The term ‘biodegradable’ does not mean that the plastic material will biodegrade anywhere, or in a reasonably short period of time. The rate at which a plastic item biodegrades is not just down to the material it is made of — it also depends on the conditions in the environment where it ends up.

Plastic that is designed to biodegrade in industrial composting facilities may not do so as effectively in the natural environment, whether in the soil, freshwater, or the sea. The rate at which plastic biodegrades in a specific ecosystem depends on a wide range of environmental conditions, including temperature and the presence of specific microorganisms. This is important because plastic items in the environment can cross from one ecosystem to another, and then its rate of biodegradation can change.

Plastic items can only be considered ‘biodegradable’ if they can be fully broken down by microorganisms. Plastic items that only break down into smaller pieces (like microplastics), or into smaller units that are not biodegradable, are not an improvement over conventional plastic.

Labelling plastic items as ‘biodegradable’, without explaining what conditions are needed for them to biodegrade, causes confusion among consumers and other users. It could lead to contamination of waste streams and increased pollution or littering. Clear and accurate labelling is needed so that consumers can be confident of what to expect from plastic items, and how to properly use and dispose of them.

Drawing on the evidence reviewed by SAPEA, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors has made the following recommendations for policy.

  • Adopt a definition of biodegradability as a system property which takes into account material properties and specific environmental conditions.
  • Limit the use of BDPs in the open environment to specific applications for which reduction, reuse, and recycling are not feasible.
    • Prioritise reduction, reuse and recycling of plastics before considering biodegradation.
    • Limit use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment to specific applications where collection from the open environment is not feasible.
    • Do not consider biodegradable plastics as a solution for inappropriate waste management or littering.
  • Support the development of coherent testing and certification standards for biodegradation of plastic in the open environment.
    • Support the development of testing and certification schemes evaluating actual biodegradation of biodegradable plastics in the context of their application in a specific receiving open environment.
    • Require testing of biodegradation of biodegradable plastics applications under laboratory and simulated environmental conditions.
    • Require assessment of biodegradation and environmental risk of BDP under the conditions of specific open environments.
    • Support the development of a materials catalogue and their relative biodegradation rates in a range of environments.
  • Promote the supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of BDPs to relevant user groups.
    • Initiate and support information campaigns to address current misconceptions and confusion related to bio-based, compostable and biodegradable plastics.
    • Support the development of standards for clear, effective European labelling for a) end-users and consumers to ensure proper use and disposal of biodegradable plastics applications in the open environment; and b) manufacturers and vendors to ensure accurate information transfer along the value chain.

Recommendations from the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors

Working group members

Professor (Emeritus)
KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
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Senior researcher
NORCE, Norway
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Professor
Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
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Professor
University of Twente
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Professor
Spanish National Research Council
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Professor
University of Groningen
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Professor
Cardiff University
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Senior scientist
ETH Zürich
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Professor
Aalto University
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Professor
Plymouth University
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Head of research
HYDRA Marine Sciences, Germany
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Events

Plastic pollution: Are biodegradable plastics a solution?
Plastic pollution is a worldwide issue of increasing concern. Each year, more and more plastic ends up in the natural environment, raising concerns of risk to the environment, animal and human health. And, while biodegradable plastics could be part of the solution, they also present certain challenges. Many biodegradable plastic products actually biodegrade only in certain specific environments, or only in industrial composting facilities, rather than in the open environment more generally.
Read more
Biodegradable plastics: how do we engage with consumers and society?
Public awareness and concern over plastics pollution, especially in open environments such as oceans, rivers and land, are at an all-time high. At the same time, the public is often uncertain and confused about what to do with plastic items after use. The increasing availability of products made from biodegradable plastics is likely to add to the confusion.
Read more
Taking action on plastics pollution: are biodegradable plastics the answer?
Every year, more and more plastics end up in our oceans and rivers and on the land. Once there, they pose risks to our environment and the health of living creatures. Conventional plastics persist for centuries, but biodegradable plastics are designed by scientists to break down in a few weeks or years. Could biodegradable plastics help us solve the pollution problem, or are they are a problem in themselves?
Read more

News

20 January 2022: Discover the built2biodegrade.eu website!
As a follow-up to our report on biodegradability of plastics in the open environment published in December 2020, we are launching the built2biodegrade.eu! This is a website dedicated to a first-of-its-kind, public experiment to discover how long biodegradable plastics take to break down in seawater. Our report stresses that calling something ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t mean that it will biodegrade in any conditions. Whether plastic will biodegrade depends on the material it is made of, but also on the conditions in the environment where it ends up, the presence of the specific microorganisms, and on the temperature. In the experiment, samples of several plastics advertised as “biodegradable” are immersed in a tank, where conditions are similar to those in the Bergen fjord of Norway – from water temperature to the right kinds of fish. The purpose is to discover how long the biodegradation process takes, which microbes are involved, and whether the location of the samples makes any difference....
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04 March 2021: Biodegradability of plastics discussed at a conference of European research ministers
Commissioner Mariya Gabriel presented the recent advice on biodegradability of plastics in the open environment to a meeting of European research ministers on 26 February.
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14 December 2020: New advice: Do biodegradable plastics bring benefits?
What does ‘biodegradable plastic’ mean?  Can biodegradable plastics help reduce plastic pollution? What policies should be in place to ensure that biodegradable plastics are beneficial to the environment, compared with non-biodegradable plastics?
Read more

Academic impact

Media coverage

18 June 2022: AEOK
Утилизация пластика – глобальная проблема
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16 May 2022: Glaukos project EU
Tackling microplastics pollution: can biodegradable textile and coating be a solution?
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03 May 2022: Yahoo Finance
Bioplastics Market Worth $25.93 Billion by 2029
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03 May 2022: The European Bioeconomy Network
Glaukos Stakeholder Workshops “Tackling microplastics pollution: can biodegradable textile and coating be a solution?”
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18 March 2022: UNIVERSITETET I BERGEN
Plast som er laget for å forsvinne: Webinar om bionedbrytbar plast
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23 February 2022: Rethink Plastic
UNEA 5.2 and the prospect of a Global Plastics Treaty
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09 February 2022: TRT World
‘Unique’ plastic as pure as the lotus flower, and as much a part of nature
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02 February 2022: CHARMERS
Biodegradable plastics in the open environment
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26 January 2022: European Parliament
Subject: Biodegradability standards in the circular economy
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16 December 2021: Academia Europaea Bergen Knowledge Hub
Christmas Greetings from the Hub Director, Eystein Jansen
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12 December 2021: Regjeringa.no
Noregs plaststrategi
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08 July 2021: Cairplas
Biodegradable o No Biodegradable, esa es la cuestión
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08 July 2021: Residuos Profesional
BIODEGRADABLE O NO BIODEGRADABLE, ESA ES LA CUESTIÓN
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06 July 2021: Renewable Carbon
Biodegradable or not biodegradable, that is the question
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28 June 2021: European Bioplastics
Biodegradable or not biodegradable, that is the question
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17 June 2021: NTB kommunikasjon
Plast som er laget for å forsvinne
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09 June 2021: Bio-based news
If there is no biodegradability, there is also no gravity
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03 June 2021: Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences
Akademier gräver fram fakta åt EU
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31 May 2021: European Bioplastics
European Bioplastics
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30 April 2021: Prescouter
The Single-Use Plastic Directive and its impact on the use of bioplastics in the CPG and F&B industries
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26 April 2021: Mix up
Biodegradable Plastics Have a Role to Play within a Circular Economy
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16 April 2021: Food Packaging Forum
UK reviews biobased and biodegradable plastics
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31 March 2021: MM Spektrum
Biodegradabilní plasty budí pozornost Evropské komise
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30 March 2021: British Plastics Federation
Biobased, biodegradable and oxo-degradable plastics (as a solution for littering)
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30 March 2021: Czech Academy of Sciences
SAPEA: Biologická rozložitelnost plastů v otevřeném prostředí
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20 March 2021: The Council of Finnish Academies
SAPEA: DO BIODEGRADABLE PLASTICS BRING BENEFITS?
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03 March 2021: Plastics News
PHA: As green as it gets
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02 March 2021: forskning.se
Se upp med biologisk nedbrytbar plast
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24 February 2021: Sustainable Plastics
PHA: As green as it gets
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16 February 2021: NY Teknik
Forskare: Biologiskt nedbrytbar plast är ingen lösning
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05 February 2021: Plast Forum
Experter till EU: Undvik nedbrytbar plast i naturen
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04 February 2021: Recycling net
Experter till EU: Undvik biologiskt nedbrytbar plast i naturen
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01 February 2021: Bekogr
NY RAPPORT: BIOLOGISKT NEDBRYTBAR PLAST I NATUREN
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29 January 2021: Mirage
Biodegradable plastics in the open environment
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29 January 2021: IT-Hållbarhet
Experter till EU: Undvik biologiskt nedbrytbar plast i naturen, utom i specialfall
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29 January 2021: Chalmers University of Technology
Biodegradable plastics in the open environment
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26 January 2021: Ambiente Plastico
3 recomendaciones del GCSA para el uso de plásticos biodegradables
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25 January 2021: Residuos Profesional
UN INFORME RECOMIENDA USAR LOS PLÁSTICOS BIODEGRADABLES EN APLICACIONES QUE NO INTERFIERAN EL RECICLAJE DE PLÁSTICOS CONVENCIONALES
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18 January 2021: Packaging Digest
Biodegradation Is Not a Sustainable Silver Bullet
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18 January 2021: Circwaste
SAPEA: Biohajoavalla muovilla ei voi oikeuttaa huonoa jätehuoltoa
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15 January 2021: Aingeriks Avisa
Det haster med god og riktig plastmerking
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14 January 2021: The Council of Finnish Academies
SAPEA: Biohajoavalla muovilla ei voi oikeuttaa huonoa jätehuoltoa
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13 January 2021: Norce
Det haster med god og riktig plastmerking
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13 January 2021: NRK
Byter ut plast med bioplast – men også den er miljøskadeleg
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11 January 2021: NRK radio Norway
God morgen Hordaland:Bioplast løyser ikkje problemet
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07 January 2021: Food packaging forum
EC’s SAM report discusses biodegradable plastics in open environment
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05 January 2021: Ambiente plastico
Plásticos biodegradables, una alternativa a la prohibición en CDMX
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01 January 2021: Politico
The battle over biodegradable plastics
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28 December 2020: Total Corbion
European Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism publishes report on biodegradability of plastics in the open environment
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23 December 2020: Xea
Commission’s SAM report confirms role of biodegradable plastics within a circular economy
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21 December 2020: Bioplastics News:
EU Scientific Advisers, China Chose Wrong Bioplastics and Covid Nonsense
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21 December 2020: Packaging connections
Commission’s SAM report confirms role of biodegradable plastics within a circular economy
Read More
18 December 2020: Sustainable packaging news
Commission’s SAM report confirms role of biodegradable plastics within a circular economy
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16 December 2020: India Education Diary
Oxford expert advises on the use of biodegradable plastics
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16 December 2020: Mirage
Expert advises on use of biodegradable plastics
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16 December 2020: UK Research office
Scientific Advice on Biodegradable Plastics Published
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15 December 2020: Politico Europe
coverage in Sustainability Pro newsletter
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15 December 2020: Politico
Biodegradable plastics aren't always great at biodegrading, report finds
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15 December 2020: Oxford University
Oxford expert advises on the use of biodegradable plastics
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15 December 2020: Rethink Plastic
Precautionary approach needed on biodegradable plastics, says Rethink Plastic alliance
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14 December 2020: ERA Portal Austria
Chief Scientific Advisors Publish New Opinion On The Biodegradability Of Plastics
Read More
14 December 2020: Agenparl
Group of Chief Scientific Advisors: New scientific opinion on the biodegradability of plastics in the open environment
Read More

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