BASF, Cargill Dow, Novamont, and Rodenburg Polymers - representing over 90 per cent of the European market for biodegradeable plastics - have agreed to a number of measures designed to benefit both the environment and the burgeoning biodegradable packaging sector.
The packaging industry is an obvious target for attempts at reducing plastic waste. At 38.1 per cent, packaging is by far the largest consumer of plastic, which in 2002 totalled over 38 million tonnes in Western Europe.
The agreement therefore guarantees that the environmental performance of the polymers complies with internationally agreed technical specifications, and aims to encourage the sustainable development of biodegradable forms of packaging.
For example, the four companies have agreed to submit their packaging materials and products for certification by an independent certification body and label their packaging products with a specific symbol to inform consumers, retailers and other interested stakeholders. The terms biodegradability and compostability have been adopted as recommended by the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.
However, the agreement does not set any specific targets for increasing the use of biodegradable plastics in packaging products. The document states: "Targets as such cannot be quantified. However, this commitment has to be seen as a starting point for a wider use of the EN 13432 standard. Openness and flexibility of this self-commitment should encourage others to join in."
Nonethless, the move has been welcome by regulators. "I warmly welcome this commitment," said commission vice-president Gunter Verheugen. "We are actively encouraging such initiatives by the private sector. They are an alternative to "hard" legislation and a central element of the Commission's zeal to regulate in a better and simpler way."
Indeed, the unilateral self-commitment represents a pro-active move by industry, and underlines that industry is now more than aware that environmental and economic benefits are not mutually exclusive. The EC believes that the move will further encourage the development of biodegradable and compostable polymers and products and could open new avenues for waste management and recycling.
Biodegradable and compostable polymers can be produced from both renewable raw materials and fossil materials. Currently, various biodegradable polymers are combined to improve the technical performance of the final products, to open up new applications or to cut costs.
The specific use of renewable raw materials (RRM) such as corn, potato, wheat and other carbohydrate sources as feedstock for the production of RRM-based polymers can give the final products certain advantages in terms of reduced environmental impact. These include a reduction in the use of fossil resources and reduced CO2 emissions, energy content and waste disposal problems.
However, the real strength of these RRM-based materials is their biodegradability and compostability when used in packaging applications.
Cargill Dow's NaturalWorks PLA was the first commercially viable biopolymer to be derived from corn. The chemical giant claims that the product performs equal to or better than traditional resins, and it is of course much more environmentally friendly.
Like PET, the corn-based plastic permits a multitude of varied and complex bottle shapes and sizes that draw the attention of the consumer. Monolayer bottles of NatureWorks PLA can be formed on the same injection-moulding/stretch blow-moulding equipment used for PET, with no sacrifice in production rate.
The self-commitment will be managed by the International Biodegradeable Polymers Association & Working groups (IBAW).