Defra and BEIS release summary of responses for consultation on bio-plastics

In 2019 BEIS and Defra released a joint call for evidence seeking views on potential standards surrounding bio-plastics - plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable or compostable.

These three material types have become increasingly popular in recent years, and have the potential to mitigate some of the many ills caused by plastic waste.

However, there is a lack of research on their actual sustainability credentials, and government has stated it is 'concerned that without robust standards and certification criteria […] benefits that such materials may bring cannot be verified’.

It is important to define the bio-materials in question, which cover:

  • Bio-based plastics that are derived from plant-based polymers, such as cellulose or starch. Although it is possible, they are not necessarily biodegradable.
  • Biodegradable plastics that can be broken down into gas, biomass or water depending on environmental conditions.
  • Compostable plastics that will behave in the same way as above, but under composting conditions.

The consultation broadly sought expert views on a number of topics, which included the sustainability of bio-plastics when compared to traditional plastics derived from fossil fuels. A life-cycle approach was taken to assess the feasibility of a set of technical standards or other mechanisms to add product value.

Also under consideration was the current state of plastic degradation criteria, and how it might be applied to these bio-material products without promoting environmental damages, and how a standard might be developed for bio-plastics that ensures they biodegrade in a given time-frame under certain environmental conditions.

Mixed views and results

The summary of responses reveals mixed views and results, some of which is due to the compromising nature of the materials themselves. For instance, stakeholders felt that although bio-based plastics have the capacity to be far less carbon intensive than conventional polymers, so do they have the potential for “impacts on both land-use and the existing waste management system”.

The responses show consistent concern, echoed too in the wider conversation surrounding biodegradable plastics, that claims made surrounding biodegradability may actually not be the case in open environments. Whereas (industrially) compostable plastics already have an established standard, a lack of a framework surrounding biodegradable claims could lead to adverse outcomes, such as increased littering and heightened micro-plastic pollution.

Respondents generally stated that all three plastic types should be supported only in very specific circumstances, and that labelling should be as informative and consistent as possible.  

More progress needed

In short, the bio-plastics industry is a relatively new one, so it is reasonable than the evidential base is not yet established. Although this consultatory process certainly progresses the dialogue surrounding bio-plastics in the UK, it is clear more progress is needed. Government has noted however that '‘We may introduce a ban on oxo-degradable plastics, subject to further consultation.’.

Head of innovation and policy, Robbie Staniforth, commented "We welcome the release of the summary of responses. However, having waited such a long time for clarity on a difficult subject area, it is disappointing to see such little guidance."

"Tough decisions need to be made by Government, based on the best information and science available. While it appears that responses led to a lack of consensus, the Government have missed an opportunity to provide leadership using their significant resources."

Click here to read the official summary of responses on the standards for bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics.

If you have any questions around bio-plastics, please contact our team.

Louisa Goodfellow

Policy Manager

As Policy advisor Louisa provides key support to our team, including preparing reports on environmental policy issues and maintaining awareness of new developments. As such she will often be found coordinating responses to policy consultations, advocating policy positions and providing internal guidance to current legislation.

Written by Louisa Goodfellow Published 19/04/2021 Topics Packaging
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