Biodegradable and compostable plastics challenges and opportunities!
More and more plastic products are labelled as compostable, biodegradable, oxo-degradable or
bio-based. However, plastics made from bio-based materials are not necessarily compostable or
biodegradable. Moreover, plastics that do biodegrade can be made from fossil fuel-based
materials. What is the difference between compostable and biodegradable? What happens to
biodegradable and compostable plastics when they are littered? Can citizens compost such
products in their own gardens? Can such plastics be recycled? This briefing aims to answer these
If and how quickly a plastic item biodegrades depends on: (1) if it is
designed for biodegradation or composting and (2) the conditions it is
exposed to after use and for how long.
The conditions in home composters and in the open environment are
very different compared to industrial composting plants and this affects
the rate and extent of breakdown.
Biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics need clearer
labelling and repeated awareness-raising campaigns targeting users to
ensure their correct disposal and treatment.
In a circular economy, all plastics should be recycled into new plastics in
the first instance. Compostable plastics that can be treated with biowaste offer environmental benefits for specific applications and
situations, provided their use is aligned with the bio-waste treatment
What are the challenges?
Plastics are a key material in modern life. They are versatile, light and can be
produced at relatively low cost. Currently, only about 1 % of plastics and plastic
products on the global market are considered bio-based, compostable and/or
biodegradable (European Bioplastics e.V., 2020b).
Most plastics continue to be made from fossil fuels in a process that contributes
to increased greenhouse gas emissions along their value chain. Indeed, plastics
pollute throughout their life cycle from production, to use and finally through their
Recycling rates of plastic are low and plastics leak into the environment through,
for example, littering, improper waste management and wear and tear of
products. They can stay in nature for many years and potentially enter the food
chain. Contamination with plastic particles is a particular challenge in terms of
keeping compost made from separately collected bio-waste clean (EEA, 2020).
Biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics are increasingly promoted
as a solution to some of these challenges. More and more consumer products,
such as plastic bags, packaging and single-use cups, are labelled as
compostable, biodegradable or bio-based. But what exactly do these terms
mean? To what extent can biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics
help solve the sustainability challenges posed by plastics? And do they create