Biodegradable plastics are increasingly being used for disposable items, such as packaging, crockery, cutlery, food service containers, bottles and other consumer products. (1) 77% of citizens believe that compostable plastic is better for the environment than other types of packaging. (2)
At TAPP Water we did the following analysis as part of our research & development in improving the sustainability of the products and company.
Problem with biodegradable product standards
All materials are inherently biodegradable, whether it takes a few weeks or a million years to break down into organic matter and mineralize.(3) Therefore, products that are classified as “biodegradable” without stating the time and environmental constraints may be misinforming companies and consumers and lack transparency. This means the waste may not be disposed correctly and thereby do more damage than good for waste management and the environment. Credible companies convey the specific biodegradable conditions of their products, highlighting that their products are in fact biodegradable under national or international standards.
What are the certificates and standards for biodegradability in Europe? What standards for biodegradable products should businesses adhere to if they want to comply? How can consumers be sure that biodegradable products are really biodegradable?
The purpose of this article is to answer these three questions and thereby provide a simple guide for sustainable business practices.It will not evaluate whether biodegradable products can be considered more sustainable than other materials.
But before we begin we need to define the terms Biodegradable, Bioplastics and Compostable.
Definition of Biodegradable products
The scientific definition of biodegradability is
"materials that are part of the earth's innate cycles like the carbon cycle and capable of decomposing back into natural elements."(4)
“Bioplastic" and "biodegradable plastic" are similar but they are not synonymous. Bioplastics are made from biological substances rather than petroleum but not all bioplastics are aerobic biodegradable.
ISO 14855 defines biodegradability as “Aerobic biodegradability under controlled composting conditions”
The challenge with both biodegradable plastics and bioplastics is that there are no time or environmental constraints and this is why the definition of compostable plastics is so important.
Definition of Compostable products
The plastic industry definition of compostable (US standard ASTM D 6002) is:
"That which is capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials".
What are the standards for biodegradable and compostable materials in Europe?
The European norm for Biodegradable plastics is CEN/TR 159325. It states that the characteristics of biopolymers and bioplastics can be applied to:
- Plastic biogenic or biobased , in regard to the origin of raw materials (renewable sources).
- Biodegradable plastics , in terms of their functionality.
- Biocompatible plastics , in terms of compatibility with the human or animal body (medical applications only).
The European Unions standard of compostable (EN 13432:20006 for packaging and EN 14995:20067 for not packaging) is that it must meet four criteria8:
- Chemical composition: volatile matter and heavy metals as well as fluorine should be limited.
- Biodegradability: the conversion of >90% of the original material into CO2, water and minerals by biological processes within 6 months.
- Disintegrability: at least 90% of the original mass should be decomposed into particles that are able to pass through a 2x2 mm sieve.
- Quality: absence of toxic substances and other substances that impede composting.
UNE-EN 13432 is used to assess what can and can’t go to the organic (compostable) container. All of the criteria above must be met for a material to be considered compostable.(9)
In addition to this there are ISO standards 17088:2012 defining plastics suitable for recovery through aerobic composting currently and ISO 18606:2012 Recycling of biodegradable plastics..
How can businesses ensure that biodegradable materials meet the standards?
European Bioplastics recommends that commercial users and retailers should ask distributors about their product certification and demand the certification number. Certification guarantees a high product safety and also allows a product to wear a certain label, which can help to make product information more transparent for the end-consumer.
For organisations in Spain that need to certify their products they should contact ASOBIOCOM or one of the certification organzations such as AENOR and ITENE.(10)
TAPP Water concluded after thorough analysis that it's impossible to create a compostable water filter cartridge that would meet the strict European standards. Therefore we switched to a more eco-friendly recyclable and reusable solution for TAPP 2.
How can consumers know what biodegradable products to buy?
As per the initial problem description biodegradable doesn't really mean anything on its own. The importance is whether the biodegradable products meet the requirements for compostability.
The Seedling logo used in many European countries makes it easy to recognise materials and products certified for compostability (EN 13432 certified). Clear, visible labelling of all compostable plastics is crucial for public acceptance of compostable plastics. Unfortunately it’s not widely recognised yet everywhere in Europe and therefore many companies have created their own symbols.
The demand for biodegradable products is growing. Although the term in itself is vague there are European standards today for what can be considered biodegradable plastics in terms of compostability. Therefore it’s important that companies, labels and marketing follow these standards to ensure that consumers understand what they mean and how to dispose of biodegradable waste. If a product doesn't have the correct label then it's unlikely to be eligible for compostation or organic waste in Europe.
- Chen, Guo-Qiang; Patel, Martin K. (2012-04-11). "Plastics Derived from Biological Sources: Present and Future: A Technical and Environmental Review". Chemical Reviews. 112
- Citizens’ attitudes & behaviours relating to food waste, packaging and plastic packaging, WRAP UK, 16th July 2019
- Chait, Jennifer. "Learn Why Not Everything Biodegradable Breaks Down". The Balance Small Business.
- Source: Ammala, Anne (2011). "An overview of degradable and biodegradable polyolefins". Progress in Polymer Science. 36 (8): 1015–1043.
- "Packaging waste directive and standards for compostability". www.bpf.co.uk.
- Fabricacion de envases sostenibles 2016 https://plandeempresa.extremaduraempresarial.es/users/downloadExamplePlan/56
Also read our article about how to save money and space in a small kitchen.