Bioplastic : EU single-use plastic ban fails to account for bioplastics

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The plastic waste crisis is one of the most environmentally pressing issues the world must face up to. Accelerated production following WWII and throwaway consumerism originally spurred manufacturers to make single-use plastics in form of cutlery, balloons and takeaway boxes. After their use, these plastics often end up polluting oceans and endangering local wildlife which is prone to mistake microplastic for foodstuff. Certain polymers may take anywhere from 200 to 400 years to degrade, rendering the level of pollution worrisome on a global perspective.

To combat the proliferation of plastic litter, the European Parliament passed a directive in 2019 to that purpose. The ‘Single-Use Plastics Directive’, passed on July 3, 2021, aims to ban ten of the most common plastic types found on European beaches by 2021 as well as to significantly reduce the number of plastic cups and containers by 2028. The directive is in line with circular waste considerations. As such, it is embedded within the EU Plastics Strategy, which seeks to render all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030, ensuring that plastic products in use are not only recycled but designed with an eye towards pollution control.

As a world power, the EU is taking its commitment to a global circular economy seriously, its measures-considered some of the toughest in the world-having already pushed recycling rates in the EU to an impressive 41,5 percent, which is three times as much as the US recycling rate.

Yet the single use ban as currently envisioned by the EU may stifle attempts to produce sustainable solutions to tackle plastic waste. This has to do with the way the directive defines the word ‘plastic’. As such, the term encompasses not only fossil based plastics but all plastics that have been chemically modified-including your run of the mill biobased, biodegradable plastics. The definition in question is so broad that it technically extends to fried eggs, as the heating process causes the egg to undergo chemical modification, resulting in substances the directive would term as ‘plastic’.

Biobased bioplastics sourced from plant materials such as corn starch have been lauded for their non-reliance on fossil fuels while biodegradable bioplastics which can be fully composted have gained momentum for leaving behind ‘zero waste’. Preserving finite resources by experimenting with the previously mentioned plastics is one way in which the plastic packaging industry has been making headway in their quest to establish a sustainable future. The new definition of plastics threatens to hamper product innovations, especially considering that the next wave of relevant legislation that could introduce amendments is only due in 2027.

As of now, member states are working on a reform of Extended Producer Responsibility, with individual countries considering specific plastic packaging taxes.

Unless said countries band together in order to ensure the continued use of sustainable plastics, this new plastic regime may lead to a plastic purge that may leave manufacturers and customers alike in the lurch.