Break Free From Plastic

Good plastics, bioplastics and greenwashing


27 Jun 2013

Written by

Joan Marc Simon


There are 1000s of plastics out there and many more are coming every year, no wonder many people are getting confused as to what can be recycled, composted or disposed of.

How to distinguish a petrol-based plastic from a bioplastic? Are they all recyclable? What about degradable plastics?DONTKNOW

These are questions that a normal citizen has to face when dealing with the myriad of plastic-made products, packaging and alike. Is it toxic? Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable? In which bin does this plastic go? With the recyclables? With the organics? With the residuals? What do all these logos mean?

The answer is not easy; there are thousands of different plastics serving many different purposes, from flexible, air-tight and see-through to hard, thick and coloured. If well used its good properties can make our life easier, if badly used it can poison us or pollute the environment for the next 500 years…

The applications of plastic are unlimited and with this material the demand drives the production; in other words, factors such as toxicity and/or recyclability are very rarely taken into account when the plastic object is designed. On top of bad design one should also bear in mind that in Europe most plastic escapes separate collection circuits which causes that only one fifth of all plastic is separately collected for recycling.

Plastic waste, what way forward?

The European Commission published a green paper and launched a public consultation to address this issue. Generally speaking there are 4 issues to be addressed:

–          How to increase plastic recycling,

–          How to monitor the inflows of different kinds of plastic,

–          How to stop plastic from entering the environment,

–          How to make sure that we make the best use of plastic

Only 21% of EU’s plastic waste is recycled – How to increase it?

Following the waste hierarchy most plastic should be prevented, a good deal of plastic should be reused and an even smaller amount should be recycled at the end of its life. Sadly the reality illustrates the opposite picture; in the EU of the 25 Million of tones of generated plastic waste (2008) 48.7% was landfilled, 51.3% was incinerated, and only 21.3% was recycled.

Currently there are plastic recycling targets for municipal solid waste, construction and demolition (C&D) waste, end-of-life vehicles (ELV), Packaging, Battery and WEEE. If the targets were met it would mean that 16 Mt of plastic waste would have been recycled (i.e. 64%, three times what is being recycled now). Why is plastic recycling so low in the EU? How do we stop plastic from ending in landfills and incinerators?

First of all it is clear that the current legal and economic incentives are not strong enough to steer plastic recycling. The separate collection of waste is not efficient enough and too many plastics –and other waste streams- end up in disposal facilities. Moreover, the extended producer responsibility schemes for plastic waste are scarce and its performance uneven; Germany recycles 98,5% of plastic packaging whereas Spain collects less than 30%. Also, markets for recycled plastic are not yet fully optimised and the demand of this secondary material low. Some measures to fix these problems are:

–          Ban or heavily tax disposal of recyclable plastic waste in landfills or incinerators,

–          Encourage as much as possible separate collection of plastic waste –pay as you throw- and penalise mixed waste,

–          Limit or promote replacing of toxic substances that contaminate the recycled pulp such as BFRs, POPs, PBB, HBCDD.

–          Targets for quality of recycled output –such as end of waste criteria that equals high quality recycled plastic with virgin plastic- in order to provide a good market for the secondary product,

Plastic, bio-plastic, biodegradable plastic, oxodegradable plastic…

There are 1000s of plastics out there and many more are coming every year, no wonder many people are getting confused as to what can be recycled, composted or disposed of.

“Traditional” plastics are made of non-renewable sources such as oil or gas and if well designed they can be recycled. On the other hand bioplastics are plastics which can have the same properties as oil-based plastics but with the difference that they are produced from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats or corn starch. Bioplastics can be designed to be either recyclable or compostable, but not both. Moreover most compostable bioplastics do not decompose the same way, whereas some can biodegrade in the conditions of home-composting the big majority of biodegradable bioplastics require very specific conditions of temperature and humidity which are only fit for industrial composting plants.

To complicate things further there are petroleum-based plastics that claim biodegradability when what they do is fragment thanks to an oxidising additive; the oxo-degradable plastics. In other words, they don’t degrade but break into small pieces which can pollute soils, increase risk of ingestion for animals and endanger quality plastic recycling.

One can wonder why we don’t have a target of recycling 90 or 95% of the plastics when we know that they are all potentially recyclable but truth is that the different kinds of plastics and the many additives and toxics used make plastic recycling or composting difficult. Some ways to address this confusion can be:

–          Restrict the use the real biodegradable plastics for the purpose of food packaging so that they can be collected with the organic waste and properly composted,

–          Ensure quality recycling for the non-biodegradable plastics and promote design-for-recycling and not design-for-the-dump approach,

–          Ban the use of oxo-degradable plastics which only endanger recycling and composting,

Single-use plastic? Do we really want that?

Plastic production comes at a high environmental and economic cost, yet it is still very cheap –and subsidised- in comparison with the alternatives. One of the results is the wide-spread use of single-use products, most of them made of plastic. Plastic bags are the best example of this practice.


From the design point of view it is quite stupid to use one of the most durable materials to produce the shortest lived products. And as we have seen one of the dangerous solutions in the market is to add additives such as the d2W to make plastic “disappear” when in reality it only breaks it into smaller pieces making impossible recovering it for recycling and endangering composting. See what the plastic recyclers and bioplastic associations say about oxo-degradable plastics.

It is a no-brainer that single use plastic bags –which represented 92% of the 95,5 billion carrier bags in the EU in 2010- should be phased out (with bans or with taxation).

Other packaging such as PET beverage bottles can be made subject to a deposit and return system which would motivate the holder to recuperate his deposit. For certain plastic items, new entrepreneurial models such as lease systems, where the producer remains the owner of the product, could be a useful tool to ensure that the item is collected and treated in an environmentally sound manner.

Another less known example of single use plastic that goes to pollute the environment are the micro-plastics and micro-beads which are present in personal care products such as soaps and creams. These micro plastics also end up in the environment and they enter the food chain.

Once in the environment – particularly in the marine environment – plastic waste can persist for hundreds of years, harm to the coastal and marine environment and to aquatic life follows from the 10 million tonnes of litter, mostly plastic, which end up in the world’s oceans and seas annually, turning them into the world’s biggest plastic dump. Waste patches in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans are estimated to be in the order of 100 Mt, about 80% of which is plastic. Plastic debris causes sea species to suffer from entanglement or ingestion.

Plastic is not inert

Conventional plastic contains a large number, and sometimes a large proportion, of chemical additives which can be endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic or provoke other toxic reactions and can, in principle, migrate into the environment, though in small quantities. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as pesticides like DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can attach themselves from the surrounding water to plastic fragments which can be harmful and enter the food chain via marine fauna.

All in all, a strong and concerted action regarding plastic and especially single use plastic is necessary. The Zero Waste strategy works at three levels;

  • Better design is needed to make plastics non-toxic and recyclable or compostable,
  • Better organisation is needed to make sure recyclable plastics are not mixed up with the compostable ones and separately collected to be properly recycled or composted,
  • Better legislation is necessary to ban/tax bad products or bad use of products, incentivise good prevention and recycling practices and build markets for recycled materials.

In the future plastic will be an asset or a liability depending on our capacity to address the above-mentioned issues. Zero Waste provides a strategy to make the best use of this great human invention so that it continues to make our life easier without endangering life of other species and future generations.In the EU of the 25 Million of tones of generated plastic waste (2008) 48.7% was landfilled, 51.3% was incinerated, and only 21.3% was recycled.