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Biobased Plastics: Fostering a Sustainable and Resource-Efficient Circular Economy

Compostable BIOSHRINK film for beverages. | Image credit: European Bioplastics

Bioplastics are not a single kind of plastic, but rather a family of materials that vary considerably from one another. There are three groups in the bioplastics family, each with its own individual characteristics: biobased, biodegradable, or both bio-based and biodegradable. Today, there is a bioplastic alternative to almost every conventional plastic material and application. Bioplastics have the same properties as conventional plastics and often offer additional advantages, such as compostability or natural breathability.

[Note: European Bioplastics strongly differentiates between naturally occurring biodegradation and biodegradation promoted by additives (so-called oxo-fragmentation). The claims made by "oxo-biodegradables" are in fact problematic (as not dangerous) for the budding bioplastics industry as they are completely unfounded scientifically and are lacking any appropriate certification by accepted industry standards.]

Dynamic Growth of the Global Bioplastics Industry

Bioplastics have a multitude of durable or short-lived applications. Durable biobased plastics such as PE, PET, or polyamides are used for long-lasting applications such as car dashboards, mobile phone covers, and much more. They are (partly) biobased, non-biodegradable commodity plastics and can be easily recycled along with their conventional counterparts. These so called ‘drop-in solutions’ represent the single largest sector of global bioplastics production. Biodegradable (and biobased) bioplastics, such as PLA or PBAT, are a growing niche market. They have a shorter life cycle and offer extra benefits to particular applications such as rigid packaging, packaging films, or biowaste bags.

Currently, bioplastics still only represent well under one percent of the about 300 million tonnes of plastic produced annually. But demand is rising worldwide, and with more sophisticated materials, applications, and products emerging, the global market is already growing by about 20 to 100 percent every year.

According to the latest market data compiled by European Bioplastics, global production capacity of bioplastics is predicted to quadruple in the medium term – from around 1.6 million tonnes in 2013 to approximately 6.7 million tonnes by 2018. Biobased, non-biodegradable plastics, such as biobased PE and biobased PET, will take the lead while PLA will be the major growth driver in the field of biobased and biodegradable plastics.

Ultimately, bioplastics can find a place in all market segments where conventional plastics are used. In many of these market segments, bioplastic alternatives are already available today.

Benefits of Using Renewable Biomass to Produce Plastics

Unlike conventional plastics, biobased plastics are derived from renewable resources, predominantly annual crops such as corn, cereals and sugar beets, or perennial cultures such as cassava and sugar cane. Using renewable biomass is a major benefit of biobased plastic products for environmental reasons. The feedstock used for the production of bioplastics relies on only about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area. Sustainable sourcing of the renewable feedstock and good agricultural practices and technologies are continuously enhanced and ensured through the emergence of reliable and independent sustainability certification schemes such as ISCC, RSB or BonSucro.

Most importantly though, biobased plastics have the unique advantage over conventional plastics to reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or even be carbon neutral, and consequently reduce the carbon footprint of products.

Plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide as they grow and convert it into carbon-rich organic matter. Using the organic matter to create bioplastics constitutes a temporary removal of the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. The carbon is stored within the product during its useful life ('carbon fixation' or 'carbon sink'). 

Moreover, bioplastics can make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through biomass use and a closed-resource cycle. This potential can be exploited most effectively by establishing so-called 'use cascades' in which renewable resources are firstly used to produce biobased materials and products prior to being either reused or recycled and eventually used for energy recovery (i.e. renewable energy). In the case of organic recycling, bioplastics help to create valuable biomass through composting.

Bioplastics Offer Sustainable End-of-Life Options

Bioplastics are suitable for a range of end-of-life options, such as reuse, mechanical or organic recycling, and energy recovery – therefore contributing to reduced waste generation and increase the efficiency of waste collection.

By using biodegradable and compostable plastic products such as (biowaste) bags, food packaging and cutlery, industrial composting (organic recycling) becomes a valuable waste management option. This is a clear benefit when plastic items are mixed with biowaste. Under these conditions, mechanical recycling is not feasible, neither for plastics nor biowaste. The use of compostable plastics makes the mixed waste suitable for organic recycling, enabling the shift from recovery to recycling. Additionally, biowaste is diverted from other recycling streams or from landfills, and separate collection facilitated – resulting in the creation of more valuable compost.

The process of biodegradation depends on the material itself as well as the environmental conditions that influence the process (temperature, location, humidity, etc). Consequently, the process and its outcome can vary considerably. Due to these variations, specific claims, labels, and clear recommendations regarding the suitable end-of-life option should always be featured on the product.

Biodegradable/Compostable Plastics in the Marine Environment:

Marine litter is one of the main threats to the environment. The largest share of marine litter consists of plastics that originate from a variety of sources, including shipping activities, ineffectively managed landfills, and public littering. The persistence of the majority of these plastics poses the biggest problem to the (marine) environment if not properly disposed of.

In areas where separate biowaste collection exists, compostable biowaste bags can help divert biowaste – including the bags in which it is collected – from landfills, thereby reducing the amount of plastic bags entering into the marine environment in the first place. Yet, biodegradable plastics should not be considered a solution to the problem of marine litter. Littering should never be accepted for any kind of waste, neither on land nor at sea – including all varieties of plastics. Instead, the issue needs to be addressed by educative and informative measures to raise awareness for proper and controlled ways of management, disposal and (organic) recycling.

Currently, there is no international standard available that appropriately describes the biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment. However, a number of standardization projects are in progress at the ISO and ASTM level on how to measure marine biodegradation.

Accurate Claims and Labels Ensure Clarity and Trust

Environmental claims of bioplastic products, such as biodegradability and the amount of biomass content, must always be specific, accurate, and provide a third party substantiation for these claims.

A label awarded in accordance with independent certification based on acknowledged standards guarantees that the product fulfills the criteria claimed. As non-experts cannot distinguish bioplastics from conventional plastics, reliable certification and labeling based on approved standards provided by CEN, ASTM, or ISO help the consumer to identify these products and inform about additional qualities the material or product possesses.

For more information on standards, certification and labeling, European Bioplastics has compiled a comprehensive Environmental Communications Guide on general recommendations and specific guidelines for environmental communication related to bioplastics.

European Bioplastics (EUBP) represents the interests of around 70 member companies throughout the European Union. With members from the whole value chain, EUBP serves as both contact platform and catalyst for advancing and highlighting the objectives of the growing bioplastics industry. On November 5-6, 2015, EUBP will host the 10th annual European Bioplastics Conference, Europe’s leading bioplastics event, in Berlin. The conference will explore the latest trends and innovations in bioplastics and discuss current political and economic issues. Complemented by a large product exhibition and plenty of networking opportunities, and attended by over 350 delegates from across Europe and further afield, the European Bioplastics Conference is a must-attend for established as well as aspiring players in the bioeconomy. For more information, please visit

Kristy-Barbara Lange became head of communications at European Bioplastics in 2010. Previously, she was employed by Hill & Knowlton Communications GmbH, an international network agency from 2007-2010. As an account manager focusing on public affairs and corporate communications, Lange counts… [Read more about Kristy-Barbara Lange]

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