Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Analysis

Tug-of-war on bioplastics in new EU packaging waste rules

  • In the EU, packaging generated a turnover of €355bn in 2018 (Photo: European Commission)
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The European Parliament on Wednesday (22 November) adopted its position on the much-debated new rules to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging to minimise packaging's environmental impact.

The proposal was adopted with 426 votes in favour, 125 against and 74 abstentions.

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However, the development of the new EU rules on packaging have been marked by strong interventions from industry and national interests.

"Another easy one," joked parliament president Roberta Metsola as MEPs started dissecting the packaging-waste proposal — right after a vote on pesticide rules.

One conflict emerged around bioplastics, which are materials that can be produced from biomass — predominantly crops — and are biodegradable or compostable.

Countries with a thriving bioplastics industry want them to be acknowledged as a solution, while those lacking specialised recycling facilities treat them as conventional plastics.

Some bioplastics are compostable — but usually only under specific circumstances and not in home composts or natural environments, where a lot of the waste still ends up.

Industry associations claim that bioplastics "minimi[se] the impact of littering", but academic research shows that popular bioplastics can still release microplastics and carry toxic compounds.

The European Commission still prefers to promote packaging reduction and recycling. In its proposal, unveiled in November 2022, recyclability requirements cover bioplastic packaging too, with limited exceptions. EU member states will be given reuse and recycling targets.

Italian bioplastics

The Italian parliament has criticised the proposal for disregarding packaging renewability and biodegradability. Being the European leader of the bioplastics sector, Italy is asking to retain its own rules in countries that are industrially composting bioplastics.

The Italian transposition of the 2019 Single-Use Plastic Directive exempted some disposable and compostable bioplastic items from the ban. The Italian bioplastics industry enjoys revenue of more than €1bn.

The Italian industry pressure to carve out more space for bioplastics extended to the European Parliament, where, out of six shadow rapporteurs, half were Italian.

Regardless of their political affiliation, the shadow rapporteurs, and other Italian MEPs who proposed amendments, demanded more favours for bioplastics.

"We claim technological neutrality in freely choosing the more sustainable packaging materials, that's why we are not satisfied with the Commission proposal", Massilimiliano Salini, a shadow rapporteur of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group told EUobserver. "These amendments have been shared with the agricultural and packaging sectors."

Rightwing Italian MEPs Pietro Fiocchi and Carlo Fidanza (from the European Conservatives & Reformists) wanted to demote the proposed regulation back to a directive, similar to the predecessor that some member states failed to transpose consistently. A large group of Italian hard-right Identity & Democracy lawmakers and, separately, two Austrians MEPs from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) proposed that packaging with innovative features "is exempt from the recyclability requirements".

The opinions of the parliament's industrial committee and agricultural committee (AGRI) were also led by Italian MEPs. Salvatore De Meo (EPP), as rapporteur for AGRI, proposed that "​Agricultural biomass plays a fundamental role in the manufacturing of compostable packaging".

Another inserted idea is that "fostering a sustainable bio-economy can contribute to decreasing Europe's dependence on imported raw materials", repeated by Italian S&D MEPs and in De Meo's opinion.

This is questionable for some as the main bioplastic packaging producers are based in China, the United States, Brazil and Thailand.

Meanwhile, other MEPs pulled the other way.

Sustainable alternative?

A group of liberal Renew Europe politicians inserted a provision that bioplastics are a good alternative only "where their biodegradation in an open environment can be ensured"- currently a difficult requirement to meet — and shadow rapporteur Grace O'Sullivan (Greens, Ireland) called for more standardisation.

The initial report, led by Belgian Renew MEP Frédérique Ries, mirrors the commission's caution.

Yet the compromise submitted to the plenary has been criticised by environmental organisations as "watering down" the regulations: lightweight plastic bags are to be banned or need to be compostable "to home composting standards", but those which are required for hygiene purposes or provided as sales packaging for loose food are exempt from these rules.

"[B]ioplastics are convincingly positioned as a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, provided that they meet the recyclability and circularity requirements of this regulation, and that the assessment of their footprint is based on a credible analysis," Ries told the EUobserver.

Similarly, Lauriane Veillard from NGO Zero Waste Europe said: "If such mixing of recycled and biobased plastic occurs, it will go against the definition of recycled content itself."

What counts as circularity is uneven in the EU's single market. "The majority of composting facilities do not accept compostable materials, especially packaging materials, in their bio-waste collection stream", said Stefanie Siebert, executive director of the European Composting Network, a non-profit membership organisation for waste facilities, companies and NGOs.

According to the network's data, Austria, France and the Netherlands do not accept complex food packaging in composting facilities, but a lot of countries do accept shopping bags and liners.

The Italian and Finnish waste composting systems accept bioplastics; in Finland subject to local rules. In Germany the national Federal Environmental Agency considers bioplastics: "not really" sustainable; they must not be sorted into compost waste, but with conventional plastic.

Answers from regional authorities indicate that German plastic recycling facilities are not prepared for bioplastics-specific recycling.

Likewise, the Lithuanian environment ministry states that bioplastics take longer to compost than kitchen waste and that processing them alongside would be a 'burden' on composting facilities.

The struggle to find a balance between the common packaging market and different local waste systems will continue as the European Parliament will have to align its priorities with the Council, representing governments.

In the EU, packaging generated a turnover of €355bn in 2018.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation into the EU's ambiguous position on bioplastics, supported by Journalismfund Europe.

Author bio

Daiva Repeckaite is a journalist based in Malta, covering politics and the environment. Simone Fant is an Italian multimedia journalist covering climate. Jelena Malkowski is a German journalist focusing on climate change and its global impacts.

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