The European Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism has recently published a major evidence review report, together with a set of recommendations for EU policy, on the subject of biodegradable plastics. Prof. Auxiliadora Prieto, a researcher at Margarita Salas Biological Research Center (CSIC) and coordinator of the Susplast Platform, has been one of the consulted leading experts to elaborate the report.
The evidence report elaborated by SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) covers the biodegradability of plastics in the open environment to assess the problem of plastic pollution from the latest scientific evidence.
Each year, more and more plastic ends up in the natural environment, raising concerns of risk to the environment, animal and human health. Replacing conventional plastic with biodegradable plastic can help with applications in the open environment — such as agriculture and fisheries, or plastics in fireworks — and where it is difficult or expensive to remove it from the environment. Biodegradable plastics that are designed for industrial composting can also bring benefits in a waste system that is well-managed to ensure this happens.
The tendency in the field would be to advocate for a circular economy: reduce the amount of plastic we use, re-use it and recycle it. However, when this cannot be achieved there is a need to look for alternatives, such as biodegradable plastics which, as the Evidence Review Report highlights, can play a role in reducing the accumulation of plastics in the environment, within some specific applications.
The SAPEA experts also stress that calling something ‘biodegradable’ does not mean that it will biodegrade in all conditions. Whether an item will biodegrade harmlessly depends not only on the item itself, but which environment it ends up in, what it breaks down into, and how long that takes.
Informed by this evidence, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors provide recommendations on which specific applications of biodegradable plastics in the open environment offer potential benefits over conventional plastics.
SAPEA brings together outstanding expertise in engineering, humanities, medicine, natural and social sciences from over 100 academies, young academies, and learned societies across Europe. It is part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism and, together with the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, they provide independent scientific advice to European Commissioners to support their decision-making, to strengthen connections between Europe’s academies and Academy Networks, and to stimulate debate in Europe about the role of evidence in policy-making.
Download the evidence report here.
Read the scientific opinion here.