According to statistics from 2014, 44% of all municipal waste in the EU is recycled or composted but this still leaves a lot to be landfilled or incinerated.
EU Circular Economy
The new proposals claim to manage rubbish in a more efficient way where most, if not all products and materials will be recycled or re-used by repairing, refurbishing or recycling them as per the EU Circular Economy Package guidelines.
Following the announcement, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) believes more needs to be done about bioplastics because not all products are designed to be recyclable in the same way as conventional plastics, but they still enter the same plastic recycling process.
“Labeling and marketing bioplastics as ‘eco’, ‘green’ or ‘bio’ sends out a misleading message to consumers, who are likely to perceive them as more environmentally friendly and harm-free than conventional plastics,” said Carsten Wachholz, senior policy officer, product policy and resource conservation, EEB.
Bio-based plastics are plastics based partly or fully on biomass resources such as sugar, starch or lignocellulosic biomass. They can be designed to be recyclable or biodegradable with the right infrastructure in place, but are not necessarily so.
Biodegradable plastics are plastics that can, with the help of micro-organisms, break down into natural elements (e.g. water, carbon dioxide, biomass). They can be based on biomass resources and/or conventional petroleum sources and are typically compostable only under controlled conditions. No finished product has yet been approved as marine biodegradable and the generic European standard on composting of packaging (EN 13432), only guarantees the biodegradation of packaging undermanaged, industrial conditions.
It claims in its report (‘Bioplastics in a Circular Economy: The need to focus on waste reduction and prevention to avoid false solutions’) according to research carried out in Germany, 57% of people have never heard of bioplastics. Of the 7% who claim to “know exactly what they are”, 39% are convinced the raw materials as bioplastics’ resource basis are organically cultivated and 70% believe all bioplastics are biodegradable.
“Biodegradable plastics can be industrially composted, but with the absence of widespread bio-waste separate collection and industrial composting facilities in Europe, they are most often sent to landfills or incinerators,” added Wachholz .
The amended Waste Legislative Package includes four directives on waste, landfills, packaging and vehicle, battery and electronic equipment recycling.
- Municipal waste: Municipal waste represents around 10% of the total waste generated in Europe. Between 2004 and 2014, the total municipal waste generated in the EU declined by 3%. However, there has been no uniform trend across countries. Whereas Denmark substantially increased the quantity of municipal waste per capita, other member states like Spain, decreased it considerably.
- Landfills: The EU landfilling of untreated waste is banned and as of 2016 the share of biodegradable municipal waste ending up in landfills is limited to less than 35%. However most EU countries are behind the current targets and 16 member states have obtained derogations. In 2014, countries including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden sent virtually no municipal waste to landfill, while others such as Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Latvia and Malta still landfill more than three quarters of their municipal waste. The Commission is proposing to limit landfill waste to 10% of overall waste by 2030.
- Packaging: Materials used for packaging in the EU include paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, wood and metal. Plastic and wooden packaging hold the lowest share of recycling, although there are wide variations in recycling rates across the member states.
- Vehicle, battery, electronic equipment: The proposed legislation includes proper recycling of end-of-life vehicles, batteries (only 40% of which were recycled in 2013) and e-waste.
“The difficulty and expense that comes with sorting between recyclable and non-recyclable plastics, bio-based and petroleum-based plastics, and mixed-source plastics brings challenges that can impact on collection and recycled material quality, worsening the already low level of plastics recycling.”
EEB found production of plastics has increased 20-fold in the past half-century, surging from 15m metric tons (MT) in 1964 to 322m MT in 2015 and is expected to double in the next 20 years.
Industry representatives estimate 70% of conventional plastics are landfilled or incinerated and 30% recycled.
European Bioplastics Association
“This low recycling rate is not likely to improve greatly given technical limitations and the prevalence of low quality single-use plastics. Yet substituting with bioplastics is also not likely to reduce the quantity landfilled and incinerated and may bring in further complications to the recycling process,” said Wachholz.
François de Bie, chairman, EUBP (European Bioplastics association) believes the Waste Framework Directive will ensure a separate collection of bio-waste across Europe using ‘collection tools’ such as compostable bio-waste bags.
"The amendments ensure the potential of bio-waste as a valuable resource can be tapped through organic recycling and will provide an important boost to the secondary resource and products market within the European Union," he said.
De Bie added, the European Parliament also voted to exclude mechanically or organically recyclable waste from landfills and introduced a food waste definition and a food waste prevention hierarchy.
Martin Reynolds, chairman, EUROPEN (European Organization for Packaging and the Environment) and VP external and regulatory affairs, Crown Europe, said he has reservations about how the packaging reuse targets may impact the Single Market.
“We question how these new targets would work, particularly in the absence of a baseline, data on reuse and an EU-harmonised calculation methodology,” he said.
According to Wachholz, the political debate around rapidly replacing conventional plastics with bioplastics hides the real issue: the pressing need to reduce all plastic use and in particular excessive, unnecessary and single-use plastics.
“Our overconsuming, throwaway culture is tied to a linear buy-use-dispose economy, and will not be solved by relying on technological solutions. Instead, we need behavioural and production change and for government priorities to be on prevention and reuse,” he said.
“Bioplastics could potentially have a positive role to play in the transition to a true circular economy, but only if their development is based on consuming within the limits of the planet, ethical and local sourcing, resource efficiency, waste prevention, reuse and recycling.
“The EU must ensure all potential policies and initiatives relevant to plastics and bioplastics, particularly the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the EU Strategy on Plastics and the review of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy promote true solutions that move us up the waste hierarchy, rather than down.
“Consumers must also be presented with unambiguous messages on the limits of bioplastics’ biodegradability and recyclability, and sound incorporation into collection systems must be ensured.”
EEB is calling on the EU to act on the recycling of bioplastics to:
1.Prioritise plastic prevention and overall reduction: substantially reduce the use of excessive, unnecessary and throwaway plastics by systematically directing all relevant policies towards waste prevention and the reduction on overall plastic use, including developing reduction targets, phasing out single-use items and disincentivising the use of non-durable plastics, independent of their feedstock or biodegradability claims.
2. Design for recycling: design bioplastics to be compatible with collection and recycling systems, and to avoid dangerous chemicals and substances.
3. Assess impacts of bioplastics: carry out a scenario analysis and impact assessment on the potential impacts, quantitative and qualitative, which the substitution of plastic feedstock from fossil to biomass sources would have on the environment and society throughout the full life-cycle.
4. Consider relevant standards and monitor their use: in the absence of legislation, consider and improve relevant standards for terminology, test methods and labelling of plastics across Europe. This could contribute to harmonizing definitions, biodegradability specifications, and to clarifying communication to consumers. Standards should be used to support legislation, and not substitute or replace the development of appropriately ambitious legislation and policy on plastics.
5. Marketing of bioplastics: impose strict legislation regarding the marketing of bioplastics to consumers, including that biodegradable plastics should never be advertised as biodegradable in the environment" to prevent littering.
6. Establish sustainability criteria: establish legally binding sustainability criteria for the production of bioplastics to ensure sustainable consumption levels and practices, minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.
7. Ensure policy coherence: any policy or initiative developed in relation to bioplastics, including requirements under the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the EU Strategy on Plastics and the review of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy, must be coherent with and bring closer together existing policies and agendas such as the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development and the EU Birds and Habitats Directives.