Frequently Asked Questions

What are Bioplastics?

Bioplastics encompasses a whole family of materials which are biobased, biodegradable, or both.
Derived from renewable biomass sources, such as plant based starch, sugarcane or cellulose, Bioplastics are already used in packaging, agriculture, gastronomy, consumer electronics and automotive industries, just to name a few.

Bioplastic materials are used to manufacture products intended for short term use, such as mulch films or catering products, as well as durable applications, such as bottles, mobile phone covers or interior components for cars. Some common applications of bioplastics are packaging materials, dining utensils, food packaging, hygiene products and insulation.

alsco greenroom  sustainable-packaging-solutions-future

alsco greenroom
sustainable-packaging-solutions-future

How can I claim my product meets AS4736 standard?

The ABA has launched the ‘seedling logo’ certification system throughout Australia and New Zealand. The seedling logo is used to clearly identify certified compostable packaging materials. To be certified compostable and carry the seedling logo, suitable biopolymer materials must undergo a stringent test regime outlined by AS4736 and carried out by recognised independent accredited laboratories1 to the AS4736 standard.

Once successful testing is complete, application for formal certification can be made to the ABA directly via your supplier of biodegradable products. In turn the ABA has enlisted an independent third party testing laboratory (SGS) to evaluate applications. If successful then an invitation is sent by ABA to license the seedling by payment of nominal fee and signing a license agreement. Successful applicants will then be licensed to use the logo along with their unique certification number.

Use of the seedling logo is available for use by both packaging material producers and their customers. The seedling logo can be printed on the finished product (eg. films, injection mouldings and bags) to market the product’s compliance to AS47362. Use of the seedling logo will ultimately help the end consumer, customers and/or municipal authorities to recognise compostable packaging and dispose of it accordingly. Importantly, the seedling logo will communicate the authenticity and independent verification of claims of compliance to AS4736‐2006.

What differentiates bioplastics from conventional plastics?

The term bioplastics encompasses a whole family of materials which are biobased, biodegradable, or both.

What is the benefit of using bioplastics?

Using compostable bioplastic products such as bags, fresh food packaging, or disposable tableware and cutlery increases the end-of-life options. In addition to recovering energy and mechanical recycling, industrial composting (organic recovery / organic recycling) becomes an available end-of-life option.

Compostability 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 (industrial composting and anaerobic digestion), enabling the shift from recovery to recycling. This way, biowaste is diverted from other recycling streams or from landfill and facilitating separate collection – resulting in the creation of more valuable compost.

What is the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA)?

Since 2006, the ABA’s principle aims are to be the voice of the bioplastics industry and to facilitate the market introduction of bioplastics throughout Australasia. The ABA’s program is supported by Compost Australia (the Association of Commercial Composters), DEHWA (Department of Environment and Heritage) and PACIA (Plastic and Chemical Industry Association) as well as a cross section of suppliers, manufacturers and retailers.

How are environmental claims of bioplastics products verified?

  • “Bio-based claims” should be backed up by sound measurements based on approved standards and ideally third-party certification. They can be made by indicating either the bio based mass content or the bio-based carbon content as a percentage of the total carbon content or the material balance of a material/product.
  • If Industrial Compostability is claimed for a product, certification (by an independent third party) according to Australian Standard AS 4736‐2006 or equivalent standards should be acquired.
  • If Home Compostability is claimed for a product, certification (by an independent third party) according to Australian Standard AS 5810-2010 or equivalent standards should be acquired.

The voluntary Australian Standard (AS) 4736–2006, Biodegradable plastics—Biodegradable plastics suitable for  industrial composting and other microbial treatment has stringent requirements for the time frame in which a product must break down in a commercial composting environment, its toxicity and the amount of organic material it contains. Products that meet Australian Standard (AS) 4736–2006 are easily recognised by having the ‘seedling logo’ printed on them.

The Home Compostable Verification logo is a symbol that the product’s claims of biodegradability and compostability as per AS 5810-2010 has been verified. To be certified compostable and carry the Home Compostable Verification logo, suitable biopolymer materials must undergo a stringent test regime outlined by AS 5810-2010 and carried out by recognised independent accredited laboratories to the Australian Standard AS 5810-2010.

Various voluntary standards and tests for biodegradability exist in overseas jurisdictions, along with an emerging view of best practice in this area, and referring to these may help consumers and businesses to assess claims. See, for example, AS/NZS ISO 14021:2000, Environmental labels and declarations—Self declared environmental claims, and European (EN 13432) and American (ASTM 6400) biodegradability standards.

These standards have different tests and requirements; however, if you claim your product complies with a certain standard, it must actually adhere to that standard no matter where it was developed. If your product does not meet that standard’s requirements or has not been accredited as claimed, you risk breaching the Trade Practices Act.

Environmental claims of bioplastics products need to verified by internationally reputable third party laboratories and certification agencies.

How are environmental claims of bioplastics products communicated?

Environmental claims of bioplastic products should be specific, accurate, relevant and truthful. Furthermore, there should be independent third party substantiation for these claims.

What is the Seedling License?

The ABA has launched the ‘seedling logo’ certification system throughout Australia and New Zealand. The seedling logo is used to clearly identify and differentiate packaging materials  as biodegradable and compostable. To be certified compostable and carry the seedling logo, suitable biopolymer materials must undergo a stringent test regime outlined by AS4736 and carried out by recognised independent accredited laboratories to the AS4736 standard.

Once successful testing is complete, application for formal certification can be made to the ABA directly via your supplier of biodegradable products. In turn the ABA has enlisted an independent third party testing laboratory (SGS) to evaluate applications. Successful applicants will then be licensed to use the logo along with their unique certification number.

Therefore, the seedling logo is a symbol that the product’s claims of biodegradability and compostability as per AS4736 have indeed been verified.

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What is the AS4736 standard for biodegradable plastic?

If a plastic material claims to be biodegradable and compostable in Australia, it must comply with Australian standard AS 4736‐2006. This standard provides assessment criteria for plastic materials that are to be biodegraded in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities. This Australian standard is similar to the widely known European EN 13432 standard, but has an additional requirement of a worm test. In order to comply with the AS 4736‐2006, plastic materials need to meet the following requirements:

  • minimum of 90% biodegradation of plastic materials within 180 days in compost
  • minimum of 90% of plastic materials should disintegrate into less than 2mm pieces in compost within 12 weeks
  • no toxic effect of the resulting compost on plants and earthworms.
  • hazardous substances such as heavy metals should not be present above the maximum allowed levels
  • plastic materials should contain more than 50% organic materials.

This standard was prepared by the Standards Australia (ww.standards.org.au) to assist authorities regulate polymeric materials entering into the Australian market. In turn, the Australian Bioplastics Association (ABA) leverages a third‐party verification system to assist manufacturers, distributors and retailers to communicate their compliance to this standard hence verify product quality with respect to biodegradability claims.

How do standard, certification and label work together?

A standard can be used as the basis for a certification scheme if it clearly defines the criteria and the testing procedures for the material or product. Once the certifier confirms compliance with the defined requirements, the respective product can be labelled with the corresponding logo.

For example:

Australian Standard on Industrial Composting AS4736 is easily identified by the Seedling Logo

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Australian Standard on Home Composting AS5810-2010 is easily identified by the Compost Bin logo

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What are the advantages of labels marking biobased property or compostability of bioplastics?

A label awarded in accordance with independent certification based on acknowledged standards guarantees that the product fulfils the criteria claimed. As bioplastics cannot be distinguished from conventional plastics by non-experts, reliable labelling helps consumers, recyclers, composters and municipal authorities to identify these products. It also informs the consumer of particular additional qualities the material or product possesses. Another advantage provided by compostability labels in particular is that they facilitate correct waste separation, collection and recovery.

What type of bioplastics exist?

Bioplastics are a diverse family of materials with differing properties. There are three main groups:

  1. Bio-based (or partially bio-based), durable plastics such as bio-based polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (so-called drop-in solutions), bio-based technical performance polymers, such as numerous polyamides (PA), or (partly) bio-based polyurethanes (PUR);
  2. Bio-based and biodegradable, compostable plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanaoates (PHA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), and starch blends;
  3. Plastics that are based on fossil resources and are biodegradable, such as PBAT and PCL, but that may well be produced at least partly bio-based in the future.

Bio-based, durable plastics, such as bio-based PE or bio-based PET, possess properties that are identical to their conventional versions. These bioplastics are technically equivalent to their fossil counterparts; yet, they can help to reduce a product’s carbon footprint. Moreover, they can be mechanically recycled in the according existing recycling streams.

Innovative materials such as PLA, PHA, or starch-based materials offer solutions with completely new functionalities such as biodegradability and compostability and in some cases optimised barrier properties.

Along with the growth in variety of bioplastic materials, properties such as flexibility, durability, printability, transparency, barrier, heat resistance, gloss and many more have been significantly enhanced.

What is the difference between ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised to CO2, water, and biomass with the help of microorganisms. The process of biodegradation depends on the conditions (e.g. location, temperature, humidity, presence of microorganisms, etc.) of the specific environment (industrial composting plant, garden compost, soil, water, etc.) and on the material or application itself. Consequently, the process and its outcome can vary considerably.

In order to be recovered by means of organic recycling (composting) a material or product needs to be biodegradable. Compostability is a characteristic of a product, packaging or associated component that allows it to biodegrade under specific conditions (e.g. a certain temperature, timeframe, etc). These specific conditions are described in standards, such as the Australian Standard on Industrial Composting AS4736 and Home Composting AS5810-2010. Materials and products complying with this standard can be certified and labelled accordingly.

Please note that in order to make accurate and specific claims about compostability the location (home, industrial) and timeframe need to be specified.

What is the benefit of using compostable bioplastics?

Using compostable bioplastic products such as bags, fresh food packaging, or disposable tableware and cutlery increases the end-of-life options. In addition to recovering energy and mechanical recycling, industrial composting and home composting (organic recovery / organic recycling) become available end-of-life option.

Compostability is a clear benefit when plastic items are mixed with biowaste (food and garden waste). Under these conditions, mechanical recycling is not feasible, neither for plastics nor biowaste. The use of compostable plastics makes the mixed biowaste suitable for organic recycling (industrial composting and anaerobic digestion), enabling the shift from recovery to recycling. This way, biowaste is diverted from other recycling streams or from landfill and facilitating separate collection – resulting in the creation of more valuable compost.

What conditions are required to effectively compost bioplastics?

Industrial composting is an established process with commonly agreed requirements concerning temperature and timeframe for biodegradable waste to metabolise to stable, sanitised products (biomass) to be used in agriculture (humus/fertiliser). This process takes place in industrial or municipal composting plants. These plants provide controlled conditions, i.e. controlled temperatures, humidity, aeration, etc. for a quick and safe composting process.

The criteria for the Industrial Compostability of packaging are set out in the Australasian Standard for Industrial Compostability AS4736. AS4736 requires the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass – i.e. valuable compost. Materials and products complying with this standard can be certified and labelled accordingly.

There is currently no international standard specifying the conditions for home composting of biodegradable plastics. However, there are several national standards, such as the Australian Standard for Home Compostability AS5810-2010 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”. Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the OK compost home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature. Based on this scheme, the French standard NF T 51-800 “Plastics — Specifications for plastics suitable for home composting” was developed, specifying the very same requirements for certification.

What are the required circumstances for a compostable product to compost?

Industrial composting is an established process with commonly agreed requirements concerning temperature and timeframe for biodegradable waste to metabolise to stable, sanitised products (biomass) to be used in agriculture (humus/fertiliser). This process takes place in industrial or municipal composting plants. These plants provide controlled conditions, i.e. controlled temperatures, humidity, aeration, etc. for a quick and safe composting process.

The criteria for the Industrial Compostability of packaging are set out in the Australian Standard AS4736 and Home Compostability AS5810-2010. AS4736 and AS5810-2010 requires the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass – i.e. valuable compost. Materials and products complying with this standard can be certified and labelled accordingly.

There is currently no international standard specifying the conditions for home composting of biodegradable plastics. However, there are several national standards, such as the Australian norm AS 5810 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”. Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the OK compost home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature. Based on this scheme, the French standard NF T 51-800 “Plastics — Specifications for plastics suitable for home composting” was developed, specifying the very same requirements for certification.

Are all bioplastics compostable?

No they are not. Bioplastics are a large family of materials that can be either bio-based, biodegradable or both. The largest share (over 75 percent) of bioplastics currently on the market are bio-based, non-biodegradable (durable) materials. Biodegradability is an inherent property of certain polymers that can be preferable for specific applications e.g. biowaste (food & garden waste) bags.

Biodegradable/compostable products should feature a clear recommendation regarding the suitable end-of-life option and correct disposal for this product. The Australasian Bioplastics Association recommends to acquire a certificate and according label for biodegradable plastic products meant for Industrial Composting according to AS4736 and Home Composting to AS5810-2010.

How does home composting of bioplastics work?

Compostable plastics that are tested and certified according to the Australian Standards for industrial composting AS4736 fulfil the technical criteria to be treated in industrial composting plants. These plants provide controlled conditions, i.e. controlled temperatures, humidity, aeration, etc. for a quick and safe composting process.

AS4736 requires for the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass – i.e. valuable compost.

Compost is used as a soil improver and can in part also replace mineral fertilisers.

How do I know whether a bioplastic is suitable for my Home Composting System?

The Australian Standard AS 5810-2010 covers Biodegradable Plastics suitable for home composting. For products or packaging to be able to meet the requirements to compost in Home Composting Systems it needs to meet Australian Standard AS 5810-2010

The ABA has developed its own logo to make it easy for consumers to visually identifying  products that conform to Australian Standard for home compostability.

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How does industrial composting (aerobic treatment) of bioplastics work?

Compostable plastics that are tested and certified according to the Australian Standards for industrial composting AS4736 fulfil the technical criteria to be treated in industrial composting plants. These plants provide controlled conditions, i.e. controlled temperatures, humidity, aeration, etc. for a quick and safe composting process.

AS4736 requires for the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass – i.e. valuable compost.

Compost is used as a soil improver and can in part also replace mineral fertilisers.

Do (industrially) compostable plastics decrease the quality of the compost?

Compostable plastics that are tested and certified according to the Australian standard for industrial composting AS4736 are required to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is biomass, which no longer contains any plastic. AS4736 also includes test on eco-toxicity and heavy metal contents to ensure that no harmful substances are left behind.

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised to CO2, water, and biomass with the help of microorganisms. The process of biodegradation depends on the conditions (e.g. location, temperature, humidity, presence of microorganisms, etc.) of the specific environment (industrial composting plant, garden compost, soil, water, etc.) and on the material or application itself. Consequently, the process and its outcome can vary considerably.

Are all bioplastic materials/products biodegradable?

No. Bioplastics are a large family of materials that can be either bio-based, biodegradable or both. The largest share (over 75 percent) of bioplastics currently on the market are bio-based, non-biodegradable (durable) materials. Biodegradability is an inherent property of certain polymers that can be preferable for specific applications (e.g. biowaste bags).

Biodegradable/compostable products should feature a clear recommendation regarding the suitable end-of-life option and correct disposal for this product. Australasian Bioplastics Association recommends to acquire a certificate and according label for biodegradable plastic products meant for industrial composting according to AS4736 and Home Composting according to AS5810-2010.

Is Biosphenol A used in bioplastics?

Australasian Bioplastics Association and its members are committed to avoiding the use of harmful substances in their products. Many plastic products do not use any plasticisers but a range of acceptable plasticisers is available if necessary. The wide range of bioplastics is based on thousands of different formulas. This means specific information regarding a certain material or product can only be obtained from the individual manufacturer, converter or brand owner using the material.

What is the recommended end-of-life option for bioplastics?

Bioplastics are a large family of different materials with widely varying properties. Drop-in solutions, such as bio-based PE or bio-based PET can be mechanically recycled in established recycling streams. Biodegradable and compostable plastics can be organically recycled (industrial composting and anaerobic digestion). All bioplastics can also be treated in recovery streams (incineration and the production of renewable energy due to the bio-based origin). As with conventional plastics, the manner in which bioplastics waste is recovered depends on the type of the product, the bioplastics material used, as well as the volumes and recycling and recovery systems available.

Can bioplastics be mechanically recycled?

If a separate recycling stream for a certain plastic type exists, the bioplastic material can simply be recycled together with their conventional counterpart – e.g. bio-based PE in the PE-stream or bio-based PET in the PET stream – as they are chemically and physically identical in their properties.

The post consumer recycling of bioplastics materials for which no separate stream yet exists, will be feasible, as soon as the commercial volumes and sales increase sufficiently to cover the investments required to install separate recycling streams. It is expected, that new separate recycling streams for PLA for example will be feasible and introduced in the short to medium term.

Are biodegradable plastics a solution for the littering problem?

A product should always be designed with an efficient and appropriate recovery solution in mind. In the case of biodegradable compostable plastic products, the preferable recovery solution is the separate collection together with the biowaste, organic recycling (e.g. composting in industrial composting plant or anaerobic digestion in AD plants), and hence the production of valuable compost or biogas. The Australasian Bioplastics Association does not support any statements that advertise bioplastics as a solution to the littering problems. Littering refers to careless discarding of waste and is not a legitimate means of disposal.

Biodegradable compostable plastics are often regarded as a possible solution to this problem as they can be decomposed by microorganisms without producing harmful or noxious residue during decomposition. However, the process of biodegradation is dependent on certain environmental conditions (i.e. temperature, presence of microorganisms, timeframe, etc.). Products suitable for industrial composting (as defined according to the Australasian standard for industrial compostability AS4736) are fit for the conditions in a composting plant, but not necessary for those outside in nature.

Littering should never be promoted for any kind of material or waste. It is imperative for the consumer to continue to be conscious of the fact that no matter what type of packaging or waste, it must be subject to appropriate disposal and recovery processes.

How do bioplastics behave in landfill?

Studies have shown that there is little risk posed by biodegradation of biodegradable plastics in landfills (Kolstad, Vink, De Wilde, Debeer: Assessment of anaerobic degradation of Ingeo® polylactides under accelerated landfill conditions, 2012). Most bioplastics remain inert in landfills.

Landfilling remains a widely applied method of waste treatment in Australia and New Zealand. Sixty nine percent* of all post-consumer plastics waste in Australia is still buried in landfills, which means that the material value or the energy value of the waste remain unused. Therefore, Australasian Bioplastics Association supports a restriction on landfilling of recyclable plastic waste in favour of strengthening measures to strengthen the recycling and recovery of plastics.

* 015–16 National Recycling and Recovery Survey (NRRS)

Related links:

NatureWorks: Assessment of anaerobic degradation of Ingeo polylactides under accelerated landfill conditions

Are biodegradable plastics a solution for the problem of marine litter?

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. In order to minimise and ultimately prevent further pollution of the marine environment an increase in the efficiency of waste management around the globe are crucial. Moreover, the introduction of a ban on landfilling for plastic products and appropriate measures to expand recycling and recovery of plastic waste are necessary.

In areas where separate biowaste (food and garden waste) 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 promoted or 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 recycling.

The UNEP report on ‘bioplastics and marine litter’ (2015) recognises that polymers, which biodegrade on land under favourable conditions, also biodegrade in the marine environment. The report also states, however, that this process is not calculable enough at this point in time, and biodegradable plastics are currently not a solution to marine litter. Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) agrees with the report’s call for further research and the development of clear standards for biodegradation in the marine environment.

Are biodegradable plastics a solution for the littering problem?

A product should always be designed with an efficient and appropriate recovery solution in mind. In the case of biodegradable plastic products, the preferable recovery solution is the separate collection together with the biowaste, organic recycling (e.g. composting in industrial composting plant or anaerobic digestion in AD plants), and hence the production of valuable compost or biogas. Australasian Bioplastics Association does not support any statements that advertise bioplastics as a solution to the littering problems. Littering refers to careless discarding of waste and is not a legitimate means of disposal.

Biodegradable plastics are often regarded as a possible solution to this problem as they can be decomposed by microorganisms without producing harmful or noxious residue during decomposition. However, the process of biodegradation is dependent on certain environmental conditions (i.e. temperature, presence of microorganisms, timeframe, etc.). Products suitable for industrial composting (as defined according to the Australasian Standard for Industrial Compostability AS4736) or for home composting (as defined according to the Australian Standard for Home Compostability AS5810-2010) are fit for the conditions in a composting, but not necessary for those outside in nature.

Littering should never be promoted for any kind of material or waste. It is imperative for the consumer to continue to be conscious of the fact that no matter what type of packaging or waste, it must be subject to appropriate disposal and recovery processes.

Do bioplastics contaminate the plastics recycling stream?

As with conventional plastics, bioplastics need to be recycled separately (by stream type). Available sorting technologies such as NIR (near infrared) help to reduce contamination.

Bioplastic materials for which a recycling stream already exists (e.g. bio-based PE and bio-based PET) can easily be recycled together with their conventional counterparts. Other bioplastics for which no separate streams yet exist, are very unlikely to end up in mechanical recycling streams due to sophisticated sorting and treatment procedures (positive selection). Innovative materials such as PLA can technically easily be sorted and mechanically recycled. Once sufficiently large volumes are sold on the market, the implementation of separate recycling streams for PLA will become economically viable for recyclers.

Are any contaminants or harmful substances left behind when compostable plastics biodegrade?

Compostable plastics that are tested and certified according to the Australian Standard for Industrial Composting AS4736 and for Australian Standard Home Composting to AS5810-2010 are required to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass, which no longer contains any plastic. AS4736 and AS5810 also include tests on ecotoxicity and heavy metal contents to ensure that no harmful substances are left behind.

What are the economic advantages of bioplastics?

As an important part of the bioeconomy, bioplastics are a future market offering job creation, development of rural areas and global export opportunities for innovative technologies. With increasing growth, the bioplastics industry could realise a steep employment growth over the next decades.

Bioplastics are used in an increasing number of markets, from packaging, catering products, consumer electronics, automotive, agriculture/horticulture and toys to textiles and a number of other segments.
The data compiled in cooperation with the research institute nova-Institute (Hürth, Germany) shows that packaging remains the largest fields of application for bioplastics with almost 40 percent (1.6 million tonnes) of the total bioplastics market in 2016. The data also confirms a decisive increase in the uptake of bioplastics materials in many other sectors, including consumer goods (22 percent, 0.9 million tonnes) and applications in the automotive and transport sector (14 percent, 0.6 million tonnes) and the construction and building sector (13 percent, 0.5 million tonnes), where technical performance polymers are being used.

Related links:

Bioplastics market data

What are some current applications of bioplastics?

Some of the current applications of bioplastics are:

  • Packaging
  • Food-services / Catering products (such as trays, cups, plates, cutlery & bags)
  • Agriculture/horticulture (such as biodegradable mulch film, plant pots & stakes)
  • Consumer electronics
  • Automotive
  • Consumer goods & household appliances
  • Film packaging, shopping & refuse waste bags
  • Rigid packaging, such as trays, containers, bottles & closures
  • Pouches & netting

Packaging

There is a high demand for packaging made from bioplastics to be used for wrapping organic food as well as for premium and branded products with particular requirements. In 2016, global production capacities of bioplastics amounted to about 4.2 million tonnes with almost 40 percent (1.6 million tonnes) of the volume destined for the packaging market – the biggest market segment within the bioplastics industry.

Rigid bioplastics applications are available for cosmetics packaging of creams and lipsticks as well as beverage bottles and many more. Materials such as PLA, bio-PE or bio-PET are used in this section. Several well-known brands such as Coca-Cola, Vittel, Volvic or Heinz use bio-PET for bottles of all sizes containing drinks and other fluids. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson resort to bio-PE to package different kinds of cosmetic products. As a potentially mechanically recyclable material, PLA is also gaining pace in the rigid packaging market.

Biodegradability is a feature often sought when it comes to food packaging for perishables. Flexible packaging solutions such as films and trays are particularly suitable for fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables as they enable longer shelf life. The requirements for food packaging are as divers and numerous as there are different types of food. Today, packaging materials and processes are extremely sophisticated and easily adaptable to meet specific application and preservation needs. When it comes to protecting food and prolonging shelf life the performance of bioplastics packaging is at least comparable with existing conventional packaging and sometimes even better. By continuing to improve barrier properties like antimicrobial coating and other aspects, the bioplastics industry will be able to achieve better preservation of food products than current packaging very soon.

For almost every conventional plastic material and application there is a bioplastics alternative available on the market that has the same properties and potentially offers additional advantages.

Bioplastic bottles

Biodegradable fruit and vegie bags mandatory in France

Food-services
Eating and drinking on the go is part of modern lifestyle. This is also linked to the requirement for flexible packaging solutions. In Germany, for example, the market volume in the catering sector, including among others plastic silverware and crockery, paper and cups, amounts to roughly 3.5 billion Euros. In the last ten years, this market has grown on average by seven percent each year. As a result, there is (and must be) a broad spectrum of bioplastics products available for the food and catering segment. The selection ranges from cups, mugs and trays to plates and cutlery.

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Agriculture and horticulture
Biodegradable polymers offer specific advantages in agriculture and horticulture. Mulching films – the most important example – are generally making rapid advances in these sectors: production of pure foods with a minimum use of pesticide is a powerful sales argument in vegetable-growing or organic farming. Ploughing-in of mulching films after use instead of collecting them from the field, cleaning off the soil and returning them for recycling, is practical and improves the economics of the operation. Biodegradable mulching films today are very well adapted to the location and fruit.

Other promising applications in agriculture and horticulture include: films for banana bushes, which have to be protected from dust and environmental influences; fastening technology; plant pots for propagation/cultivation; fertiliser rods; or pheromone traps, which no longer have to be removed after use.

Biodegradable plastics also offer opportunities for pot-plant marketing. Herb pots are a good example. Once the herbs are harvested, everything including the film can be composted. Alternatively, products can simply be planted into their pot, which is very convenient for hobby gardeners. Flower bulbs that can directly be planted into the soil in their packaging are also available. The packaging disperses quickly and then plant growth can begin.

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Consumer electronics
A large proportion of consumer electrical appliances are made of plastics. Today, casings, circuit boards and data storage are made of plastic to ensure the appliances are light and mobile whilst being tough and, where necessary, durable. An increasing range of bioplastic products is introduced in the fast-moving consumer electronics sector: touch screen computer casings, loud speakers, keyboard elements, mobile casings, vacuum cleaners or a mouse for a laptop.

In the automotive industry manufacturers have turned to biobased or partly biobased durable bioplastics to produce sturdy dashboard components as well as solid interior and exterior features. Components made completely or partially from bioplastics can provide a standard of safety that is of ultimate importance in the transportation sector. The products include seat and airbag covers as well as steering wheels.

With new innovations on the way, bioplastics will take up a greater share of the composition of both automobiles and high-quality, fast-moving consumer electronics

Which products can be made by bioplastics?

The latest market data analysis by European Bioplastics Association shows that packaging remains the largest fields of application for bioplastics with almost 40 percent of the total bioplastics market in 2016. The data also confirms a decisive increase in the uptake of bioplastics materials in many other sectors, including consumer goods (22 percent) and applications in the automotive and transport sector (14 percent) and the construction and building sector (13 percent), where technical performance polymers are being used.

Bioplastics in everyday life

Are bioplastics applied in mainly short-lived products?

Bioplastics have a multitude of durable but also short-lived applications. Durable, bio-based commodity plastics such as bio-based PE or bio-based PET are used for short-life applications such as packaging as well as for long-lasting applications such as car parts, toys, or consumer electronics that can be easily recycled in existing streams. These so called ‘drop-in solutions’ represent the largest sector of global bioplastics production.

Innovative bio-based and biodegradable materials such as PLA, PHA or starch blends are suitable for long-lasting products but are mainly used in short-lived applications such as packaging. They offer solutions with completely new functionalities such as compostability and in some cases optimised barrier properties for a prolonged shelf life and thus preventing food waste.

Are bioplastic products penetrating the plastics market?

Today, there is a bioplastic alternative for almost every conventional plastic material and corresponding application. Bioplastics are moving out of the niche and into the mass market. The current market for bioplastics is characterised by a dynamic growth rate and a strong diversification.

With a growing number of materials, applications, and products, the number of manufacturers, converters and end-users also increases steadily. Significant financial investments have been made into production and marketing to guide and accompany this development. Legal framework conditions provide incentives for the use of bioplastics in several countries worldwide, providing stimulus to the market.

Big brand owners including Danone, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Heinz, Tetra Pak, Unilever and L’Occitane in the packaging market, or Ford, Mercedes, VW, Toyota in the automotive market have launched or integrated bioplastic products. With strong brand names driving the development, market penetration is gaining speed.

Are bio-based plastics more sustainable than conventional plastics?

Bio-based plastics have the same properties as conventional plastics but also feature the unique advantage to reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources and to potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, bio-based plastics can help to decouple economic growth from the resource depletion and help the meet targets of greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Moreover, bioplastics can make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through a closed resource cycle and use cascades, especially if bio-based materials and products are being either reused or recycled and eventually used for energy recovery (i.e. renewable energy).

Can fossil plastics be completely replaced by bioplastics?

Today, there is pretty much nothing that bioplastics can’t do. For almost every conventional plastic material and application, there is a bioplastic alternative available that offers the same or in some cases even better properties and functionalities. The main challenge faced by the bioplastics industry is not of technical nature but the lack of effective policy measures or regulatory incentives to encourage a full-scale market entry.

According to a PRO BIP study conducted by the University of Utrecht in 2009, bioplastics could technically substitute around 85 percent of conventional plastics. To make all plastics from bio-based materials is not a realistic short- or mid-term development.

Are bioplastics more expensive than conventional plastics?

The cost of research and development still makes up for a share of investment in bioplastics and has an impact on material and product prices. Additionally, the currently low oil prices are making it difficult for bioplastics to achieve competitive pricing levels compared to conventional plastics at present. However, prices have continuously been decreasing over the past decade. As more companies and brands are switching to bio-based plastics, and as production capacities are rising, supply chains and processes are becoming more efficient, and prices have come down significantly. With rising demand and more efficient production processes, increasing volumes of bioplastics on the market and oil prices expected to rise again, the costs for bioplastics will soon be comparable with those for conventional plastic prices.

Moreover, specific material properties of bioplastic materials can allow for a reduction of the overall volumes of materials needed for a product or application as well as for cost reduction in the use or end-of-life phase. Already today, there are several examples of cost competitive bioplastic materials and products.

What are bioplastics made of?

Today, bioplastics are mostly made of carbohydrate-rich plants such as corn, sugar cane or sugar beet – so-called food crops or first generation feedstock. First generation feedstock is currently the most efficient for the production of bioplastics, as it requires the least amount of land to grow and produces the highest yields.

The bioplastics industry is also researching the use of non-food crops (second and third generation feedstock), such as cellulose, with a view to its further use for the production of bioplastics materials. Innovative technologies are focussing on non-edible by-products of the production of food crops, which generates large amounts of cellulosic by-products such as straw, corn stover or bagasse that can be used to produce biopolymers.

What are bioplastics made of

What feedstocks are able to be used to produce bioplastics?

Currently, bioplastics are mostly made of carbohydrate-rich plants such as corn or sugar cane, so called food crops or first generation feedstock. First generation feedstock is currently the most efficient for the production of bioplastics, as it requires the least amount of land to grow and produces the highest yields.

The bioplastics industry is also researching the use of non-food crops (second and third generation feedstock), such as cellulose, with a view to its further use for the production of bioplastics materials. Innovative technologies are focussing on non-edible by-products of the production of food crops, which inevitably generates large amounts of cellulosic by-products such as straw, corn stover or bagasse, which are usually left on the field where they biodegrade at a quantity much higher than is necessary to restore the soil carbon pool. Ideally, they are used to produce energy used for the conversion of feedstock. This leaves significant potential for using biotechnological processes to create platform chemicals for industrial purposes – amongst them the production of bioplastics.

Almost any carbohydrate source can be used to produce bioplastics.

How much agricultural area is used for bioplastics?

Today, bioplastics are mostly made from carbohydrate-rich plants, such as corn or sugar cane, so called agro-based feedstock or 1st generation feedstock. Currently, 1st generation feedstock is the most efficient feedstock for the production of bioplastics as it requires the least amount of land to grow on and produces the highest yields.

The feedstock currently used for the production of bioplastics relies on only about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area – compared to 96 percent of the area, which is used for the production of food and feed. Assuming continued growth in the bioplastics market at the current stage of technological development, the share of global agricultural area used to grow feedstock for the production of bioplastics could grow to approximately 0.02 percent in 2019. This clearly demonstrates that there is no competition between food/feed and industrial production.

A recent report by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research (Bio-based and biodegradable plastics – Facts and figures, 2017) calculates that “even if we would base all present world-wide fossil plastics production on biomass as feedstock instead, the demand for feedstock would be in order of 5 percent of the total amount of biomass produced and harvested each year”. Yet, such scenario is unlikely to happen since the bioplastics industry is also looking into the use of non-food crops (ligno-cellulosic feedstock), such as wood, straw, as well as waste products and side streams of the agro-industry for the production of bioplastics. Using an increased share of food residues, non-food crops or cellulosic biomass could lead to even less land needed for bioplastics than the numbers given above.

Land use for bioplastics 2014 and 2019

Related links:

Renewable Feedstock

Graph: Land use for bioplastics 2014 and 2019

Position paper: Feedstock availability

Why does the bioplastics industry use agricultural resources?

The emerging shift from crude oil towards renewable resources is driven primarily by the sustainable development efforts of the plastics industry. Finite oil resources and climate change constitute two broadly acknowledged challenges for society in the coming decades. Reducing the dependency on oil and mitigating the effects of climate change are therefore two important drivers for the use of renewable resources for the production of plastics. Bio-based plastics have the unique advantage over conventional plastics to reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Using biomass that is sustainably sourced and regrows on an annual basis is a major environmental benefit of bio-based plastic products. Plants sequester carbon dioxide during their growth and convert it into carbon-rich organic matter. When these materials are used in the production of bioplastics the carbon is stored within the products during their useful life, which can be prolonged if the products are being recycled. This carbon is eventually released back into the atmosphere through energy recovery or composting. Consequently, bio-based plastics can help the EU to meet its 2020 targets of greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

Moreover, bioplastics can make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through a closed resource cycle and use cascades, especially if bio-based materials and products are being either reused or recycled and eventually used for energy recovery (i.e. renewable energy).

Does the production of bioplastics impact the supply of food?

The feedstock currently used for the production of bioplastics relies on only about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area – compared to 96 percent of the area, which is used for the production of food and feed. This clearly demonstrates that there is no competition between food/feed and industrial production.

Of the 13.4 billion hectares of global land surface, around 37 percent (5 billion hectares) is currently used for agriculture. This includes pastures (70 percent, approx. 3.5 billion hectares) and arable land (30 percent, approx. 1.4 billion hectares). This 30 percent of arable land is further divided into areas predominantly used for growing food crops and feed (26 percent, approx. 1.26 billion hectares), as well as crops for materials (2 percent, approx. 106 million hectares, including the 680,000 hectares used for bioplastics)*, and crops for biofuels (1 percent, approx. 53 million hectares).

Moreover, advanced integrated production processes, for example in biorefineries, are already able to produce several different kinds of products out of one specific feedstock – including products for food, feed, and products, such as bioplastics.

Whilst many current generation bioplastics rely on agricultural feedstock sources, there is a new generation of bioplastics that utilise methane, CO2 and previously unutilised waste streams

*The 2 percent comprise e.g. natural fibres (primarily cotton), rubber, bamboo, plant oils, sugar and starch. Of these 106 million hectares only 400.000 hectares are used to grow feedstock for bioplastics (primarily sugar and starch).

Is the current use of food crops for the production of bioplastics ethically justifiable?

According to the FAO, about one third of the global food production is either wasted or lost every year. The Australasian Bioplastics Association acknowledges that this is a serious problem and strongly supports efforts to reduce food waste.

Other deficiencies that need to be addressed are:

  • logistical aspects such as poor distribution/storage of food/feed,
  • political instability, and
  • lack of financial resources.

When it comes to using biomass, there is no competition between food or feed and bioplastics. The land currently needed to grow the feedstock for the production of bioplastics amounts to only about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area – compared to 96 percent of the area that is used for the production of food and feed.

Agro-based feedstock – plants that are rich in carbohydrates, such as corn or sugar cane, is currently the most efficient and resilient feedstock available for the production of bioplastics. Other solutions, such as non-food crops or waste from food crops that are providing ligno-cellulosic feedstock, will be available in the medium and long term.

There is no well-founded argument against a responsible and monitored (i.e. sustainable) use of food crops for bioplastics. There is even evidence that the industrial and material use of biomass may in fact serve as a stabilizer for food prices, providing farmers with more secure markets and thereby leading to more sustainable production. Independent third party certification schemes can help to take social, environmental and economic criteria into account and to ensure that bioplastics are a purely beneficial innovation.

Land use for bioplastics 2014 and 2019

Is there competition between food, feed and bioplastics regarding agricultural area?

The feedstock currently used for the production of bioplastics relies on only about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area – compared to 96 percent of the area, which is used for the production of food and feed. This clearly demonstrates that there is no competition between food/feed and industrial production.

Of the 13.4 billion hectares of global land surface, around 37 percent (5 billion hectares) is currently used for agriculture. This includes pastures (70 percent, approx. 3.5 billion hectares) and arable land (30 percent, approx. 1.4 billion hectares). This 30 percent of arable land is further divided into areas predominantly used for growing food crops and feed (26 percent, approx. 1.26 billion hectares), as well as crops for materials (2 percent, approx. 106 million hectares, including the 680,000 hectares used for bioplastics)*, and crops for biofuels (1 percent, approx. 53 million hectares).

Moreover, advanced integrated production processes, for example in biorefineries, are already able to produce several different kinds of products out of one specific feedstock – including products for food, feed, and products, such as bioplastics.

*The 2 percent comprise e.g. natural fibres (primarily cotton), rubber, bamboo, plant oils, sugar and starch. Of these 106 million hectares only 400.000 hectares are used to grow feedstock for bioplastics (primarily sugar and starch).

Are GMO crops used for bioplastics?

The use of genetically modified (GM) crops is not a technical requirement for the production of any bioplastic materials that are commercially available today. If GM crops are used, the reasons usually lie in the regional feedstock supply situation or are based on economic decisions.

Most bioplastics producers do not use GMO feedstock for the production of their bio-based plastic materials or offer GMO-free options. Yet, even if GM crops are used for the production of bioplastics, the multiple-stage processing and high heat used to create the polymer removes all traces of genetic material. This means that the final bioplastic product contains no genetic traces. The resulting bioplastic product is therefore well suited to use in food packaging as it contains no genetically modified material and cannot interact with the contents.

Can the environmental impact of bioplastics and conventional plastics be compared?

Comparing two different products is difficult as the materials (fossil-based and bio-based) and production processes vary widely, and current assessment tools and methods are limited in their ability to make sound, substantiating comparisons.

Whereas the carbon footprint of products (CFP or PCF – product carbon footprint ISO/TS 14067) of two products can be compared, the life cycle assessments (LCAs, ISO 14040 and 14044) of two different products may have limited significance as they can consider different impact categories, differ in scope, and leave ample room for interpretation. A sound comparison based on LCA can, however, be made for one product when switching from fossil to bio-based plastics as a way to assess the environmental impact of the product before and after the switch. Such comparison will clearly show where the bio-based solution is advantageous as long as it is conducted in the same way considering the exact same impact categories.

How can the environmental impact of bioplastics be assessed?

Bio-based plastics have the unique advantage to reduce the dependency on fossil resources, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and increase resource efficiency. What is more, bioplastics are an essential part of the bioeconomy. Although, compared to conventional plastics, the production of bioplastics is still small (about 1-2 percent of the entire global plastics production), the potentials for growth and further innovation and development are enormous. These yet untapped potentials of the bioplastics industry and the positive environmental, and socio-economic effects need to be considered when assessing the environmental impact of bioplastics – especially when compared to established conventional plastics. Currently, there are two meaningful indicators that sustainability assessments of bioplastics should focus on, as they rely on common methodologies and standards:

  • biobased/renewable content (AS4736, AS5810, EN 16440, EN 16785-1 /-2, ASTM 6866)
  • reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (ISO/TS 14067, GHG Protocol, PAS2050).

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are an important tool for substantiating environmental claims (ISO 14040 and 14044) as they take into account many different factors such as energy use, GHG emissions, and water use. In order to get a complete picture of a product’s impact on the environment, the complete life cycle must be taken into account. Yet, LCAs can only shine a spotlight on a single product. They are not suitable for comparing different products as materials (e.g. fossil-based and bio-based) and process vary widely, limiting the ability to make sound, substantiated comparisons.

Do bioplastics have a lower carbon footprint than fossil based plastics? How is this measured?

Bio-based plastics have the unique advantage over conventional plastics to reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plants sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) during their growth. Using these plants (renewable biomass) to produce bio-based plastics removes CO2 from the atmosphere and keeps it stored throughout the entire product life. This carbon fixation (carbon sink) can be extended for even longer if the material is recycled.

Substituting the annual global demand for fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with bio-based PE would safe more than 42 million tonnes of CO2. This equals the CO2 emissions of 10 million flights aground the world per year.

The carbon footprint of a product (CFP) can be measured by carbon footprinting or the life cycle assessment (LCA, standard ISO 14040 and ISO 14044). Information on how a carbon footprint should be established is set out in the ISO 14067 standard entitled the “Carbon Footprint of Products” published in 2013.

What are the advantages of biodegradable/compostable bioplastic products?

Using biodegradable and compostable plastic products such as biowaste bags, fresh food packaging, or disposable tableware and cutlery increases the end-of-life options. In addition to recovering energy and mechanical recycling, industrial composting (organic recovery / organic recycling) becomes an available end-of-life option.

Compostability 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 (industrial composting and anaerobic digestion), enabling the shift from recovery to recycling (a treatment option which ranks higher on the European waste hierarchy). This way, biowaste is diverted from other recycling streams or from landfill and facilitating separate collection – resulting in the creation of more valuable compost.

Do bioplastics ‘contaminate’ mechanical recycling waste streams?

As with conventional plastics, bioplastics need to be recycled separately (by stream type). Available sorting technologies such as NIR (near infrared) help to reduce contamination.

Bioplastic materials for which a recycling stream already exists (e.g. bio-based PE and bio-based PET) can easily be recycled together with their conventional counterparts. Other bioplastics for which no separate streams yet exist, are very unlikely to end up in mechanical recycling streams due to sophisticated sorting and treatment procedures (positive selection). Innovative materials such as PLA can technically easily be sorted and mechanically recycled. Once sufficiently large volumes are sold on the market, the implementation of separate recycling streams for PLA will become economically viable for recyclers.

The difference between compostable and oxo-degradable?

According to the ABA, products that do not meet the standards of Bioplastics, but only to ‘test methods’ for example, such as the oxo-degradables, almost certainly do not and will not biodegrade in a composting facility in any desired time frame.

Bioplastics are a family of products that are biodegradable, biobased or both.

Biodegradability can be confirmed by certification to various internationally recognised standards such as EN 13432, ASTM D6400, or in Australia, AS 4736-2006, where biodegradability in industrial composting facilities is desired. Biodegradability is not affected by the source of the raw material, so fossil-based raw materials can be biodegradable as can some renewable raw materials. These materials, once having passed the standards-required level of testing are certified compostable and therefore biodegradable. 

Biobased refers to renewable raw material content in the material or product. For example, biobased-polyethylene (Bio-PE) can be produced from sugar cane, but it is not biodegradable and certainly not compostable. This material is not designed to end its functional life in composting.

The science behind the argument

In the global market today, there are many offerings of derivative plastics claiming to be biodegradable such as those termed by their proponents as oxo-degradable or oxo-biodegradable. These materials are not and probably never will be certified compostable according to the internationally recognised standards.

Biodegradation requires consumption by microorganisms, such as in industrial composting or home composting, but time, heat and other critical factors that affect the biodegradation and disintegration of the product or material, are measured against a performance standard [such as Australian Standard AS 4736-2006 (amendment 1, 2009), referred to above and Australian Standard AS 5810-2010 for products designed for home composting] with pass or fail criteria, as prescribed by the relevant standard.

Terms such as ‘oxo’, ‘hydro’, ‘chemo’ and ‘photo’ describe potential abiotic (non-biological process) mechanisms of degradation. They do not constitute or represent ‘biodegradability’ − the biological process by which microorganisms present in the disposal environment assimilate/utilise carbon substrates as food for their life processes.

Because it is an end of life option, and harnesses microorganisms present in the selected disposal environment, one must clearly identify the ‘disposal environment’ when discussing or reporting the biodegradability of a product, e.g., biodegradability in a composting environment (compostable plastic), biodegradability in a soil environment, biodegradability under anaerobic conditions (in an anaerobic digester environment or even a landfill environment) or biodegradability in a marine environment.

Reporting the time to complete biodegradation or more specifically the time required for the complete microbial assimilation of the plastic, in the selected disposal environment, is an essential requirement − so stating that a plastic will eventually biodegrade based on data showing an initial 10−20% biodegradability is not acceptable and is misleading, especially since the percentage biodegradation levels off and reaches a plateau after the initial rate and level of biodegradation − drawing a dotted line extrapolation from the initial rate and value to 100% biodegradation is scientifically untenable.

Specification standards with specific pass/fail criteria exist only for biodegradability in composting conditions − compostable plastics. There are a number of standard test methods for conducting, measuring and reporting biodegradability; however, they do not have pass/fail criteria associated with it. Therefore, an unqualified claim of biodegradability using a standard test method is misleading unless the biodegradability claim is qualified by the rate and extent of biodegradation in the test environment, and validated by an independent third-party laboratory using internationally adopted standard test methods.

Claims of degradable, partially biodegradable or eventually biodegradable are not acceptable, because it has been shown that these degraded fragments absorb toxins present in the environment, concentrating them and transporting them up the food chain.

How can one distinguish oxo-fragmentable from biodegradable plastics

Truly biodegradable plastics can be distinguished from so-called ‘oxo-fragmentable’ plastics through the use of labels and certification that adhere to acknowledged industry standards for biodegradation. The Australian standard for industrial compostable packaging AS4736, for example, is such a clear and specific option, and corresponding certification and labels such as the ‘Seedling’ logo (according to AS4736) are available to substantiate the claims of biodegradability and compostability.

What is the difference between oxo-fragmentable and biodegradable plastics?

So-called ‘oxo-fragmentable’ products are made from conventional plastics and supplemented with specific additives in order to mimic biodegradation. In truth, however, these additives only facilitate a fragmentation of the materials, which do not fully degrade but break down into very small fragments that remain in the environment.

Biodegradability is an inherent characteristic of a material or polymer. In contrast to oxo-fragmentation, biodegradation results from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms. The process produces water, carbon dioxide, and biomass as end products.

Oxo-fragmentable materials do not biodegrade under industrial composting conditions as defined in accepted standard specifications such as AS 4736, EN 13432, ISO 18606, or ASTM D6400

Are enzyme-mediated plastics truly biodegradable / compostable?

Biodegradation is defined as the biochemical process by which materials metabolise completely to water, carbon dioxide, and biomass with the help of microorganisms. However, the term “biodegradable” is not valuable if the timeframe and the conditions are not specified and related scientific data is not provided. Currently, there are no known, scientifically reliable test results for enzyme-mediated plastics, which provide evidence for biodegradability or compostability. Likewise, there has not been any documentation of enzyme-mediated plastic fulfilling the criteria of the Industrial Composting according to AS4736 and Home Composting to AS5810-2010 standards.

What are enzyme-mediated plastics?

Enzyme-mediated plastics are not bioplastics. They are not bio-based and they are not proven to be biodegradable or compostable in accordance with any standard*. Enzyme-mediated plastics are conventional, non-biodegradable plastics (e.g. PE) enriched with small amounts of an organic additive. The degradation process is supposed to be initiated by microorganisms, which consume the additives. It is claimed that this process expands to the PE, thus making the material degradable. The plastic is said to visually disappear and to be completely converted into carbon dioxide and water after some time, which could not yet been proven by any available study.

* “Biodegradability” refers to a process during which microorganisms from the environment convert materials into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and biomass without the use of artificial additives.

How can one recognize enzyme-mediated plastics?

Enzyme-mediated plastics usually neither look nor feel different from conventional plastics. However, when a product carries claims such as “this plastic degrades faster”, or “makes conventional plastics like PE or PP biodegradable” together with “organic additives” and “eco-friendly”, it is likely that the material is an enzyme-mediated plastic.

Enzyme-mediated plastics are not bioplastics. They are not bio-based and they are not proven to be biodegradable or compostable in accordance with any standard*.

* “Biodegradability” refers to a process during which microorganisms from the environment convert materials into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and biomass without the use of artificial additives.

How large is the bioplastics market – currently and in future?

Currently, bioplastics represent about one per cent of the about 320 million tonnes (Source: Plastics Europe) of plastic produced annually. But as demand is rising and with more sophisticated materials, applications, and products emerging, the market is already growing by about 20 to 100 per cent per year. According to the latest market data compiled by European Bioplastics, global production capacity of bioplastics is predicted to grow by 50 percent in the medium term, from around 4.2 million tonnes in 2016 to approximately 6.1 million tonnes in 2021.

Global Production Capacity of Bioplastics

What are the main characteristics of the bioplastic market?

The bioplastics industry is a young, innovative sector with an enormous economic and ecological potential for a low-carbon, circular bioeconomy that uses resources more efficiently. The current market for bioplastics is characterised by a dynamic growth rate and a strong diversification. Even though bioplastics still represent around one percent of the about 320 million tonnes of plastics produced worldwide annually (Source: Plastics Europe), the market for bioplastics is growing by about 20-100 percent annually.

With a growing number of materials, applications and products, the number of manufacturers, converters and end users is increasing steadily. Significant financial investments have been made in production and marketing to guide and accompany this development. Bioplastics are a relevant and leading segment of the plastics industry.

The factors driving market development are both internal and external. Especially external factors make bioplastics the attractive choice. This is reflected in the high rate of consumer acceptance and increased consumer demand for more sustainable options and products. Moreover, the extensively publicised effects of climate change, price fluctuations of fossil materials, and the necessity to reduce the dependency on fossil resources also contribute to bioplastics being viewed favourably.

From an internal perspective, bioplastics are efficient and technologically mature materials. They are able to improve the balance between the environmental benefits and the environmental impact of plastics. Life cycle analyses demonstrate that some bioplastics can significantly reduce CO2 emissions compared to conventional plastics (depending on the material and application). What is more, the increasing utilisation of biomass in bioplastic applications has two clear advantages: renewability and availability.

Are bioplastics edible?

Bioplastics are not suitable for human consumption. Bioplastics are used in packaging, catering products, automotive parts, electronics, consumer goods, textiles, and many other applications where conventional plastics are used, too. Neither conventional plastic nor bioplastic should be ingested. Bioplastics used in food and beverage packaging are approved for food contact, but are not suitable for human consumption.