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Biodegradable Plastics
Nov 21, 2017

Made of fossil or biofuel, biodegradable/compostable plastics are materials that can be degraded by biological processes during composting. If directed to specific industrial composting environments, they will dissolve and decompose back into natural elements.

Biodegradable or compostable?
Whilst all compostable plastics are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials meet composting criteria.

  • Plastics are biodegradable when their degradation is caused by the action of micro-organisms such as fungi or bacteria. The material is ultimately converted into water, carbon dioxide and/or methane, as well as new biomass. The definition does not include any requirements concerning the length of the degradation process.

  • Plastics are compostable when their biodegradation is compatible with the conditions (temperature, humidity level, time) found in composting facilities. According to European standards, the degradation process should take between 6 and 12 weeks.

Besides biodegradation and compostability, there are other degradation mechanisms (oxodegradation, UV-degradation) acting on purpose-built plastics materials. Such plastics cannot be considered as bioplastics as they do not meet the standards for biodegradability/compostability. Presently there are no standards or certifications for oxo- or UV-degradable plastics in Europe.

How are biodegradable and compostable plastics used?

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are especially useful for plastic containers which will are meant to be disposed of together with their contents. This includes applications include like food packaging, biodegradable mulch and seed films;, compostable catering products such as cutlery cups and plates, compostable bags for kitchen waste or bio-waste, biodegradable plastic products for outdoorside use (golf tees, binding cords or planting pots).

For such plastic products, PlasticsEurope:

  • Supports the development and application of EU standards for biodegradability of plastics;

  • Insists that the benefits of biodegradability can only be obtained in appropriate composting facilities;

  • Argues that compostability should be offered in applications where it brings a well-defined benefit to the consumer or user;

  • Insists on the importance to ensuringe that only plastics waste which fulfils the facility requirements areis placed into composting or digestion waste streams.

  • Stresses that the environmental performance of plastics (both compostable and non-compostable) must be assessed by means of a comprehensive analysis. Life Cycle Assessments, together with costs evaluations, are an appropriate tools for evaluating product categories.

  • Stresses that biodegradable plastics are not the solution answer to littering, which is a behavioural issue that requires awareness, education, law enforcement and sound waste management practices.

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