It is impossible to discuss plastic without also talking about its disposal. Disposal of plastic has been a hot topic in recent years, and with good reason, as incorrect sorting and disposal of plastic has a negative impact on the environment.
Knowing and understanding the different methods and local regulations for sorting and disposal of plastic is an important factor when discussing sustainability and plastic.
Also known as the waste hierarchy, ‘the 3 R’s’ : reduce, reuse and recycle, have become a guidance for sustainability when it comes to waste management, with some even adding a fourth ‘R’: refuse.
While legislation around the world aims to reduce the use of plastic and thereby plastic waste, the issue of what to do with the existing plastic once it has been used remains. One of the preferred methods is to increase plastic recycling rates, while others use plastics made from alternative renewable or biodegradable materials.
Alternative materials such as sugar cane bagasse are renewable, compostable and biodegradable. However, if sorted incorrectly and it ends up in the landfill, it is not necessarily (depending on other factors in the lifecycle) better than other materials.
Full lifecycle thinking
It is generally accepted that the full efficiency of a resource can only be achieved by assessing the entire lifecycle of a product. And achieving resource efficiency can be done by making sustainable and environmentally conscious decisions in every phase of the lifecycle.
See this video from PlasticsEurope about full lifecycle thinking to find out more.
There are generally four methods for disposal of plastics, but not all of them are equal:
Many countries are no longer using landfills, and continued regulation (such as EU directives for circular economy) are aimed at reducing the use and impact of landfills in the future.
While all plastics in theory can be disposed of in landfills, landfills are highly wasteful and require vast amounts of space and energy. Poorly managed landfills result in plastic being carried into the ocean. In addition, when plastic decomposes in landfills, it can leak pollutants into the soil and surrounding environment.
What happens when biodegradable plastics end up in the landfills?
Since landfills are generally air-tight (and therefore oxygen-free), they do not provide an optimal environment for materials to compost or biodegrade. So, if a biodegradable PLA product ends up in the landfill, it either breaks down anaerobically to release methane gasses, or it remains in the landfill like other types of plastic.
Incineration is the most used option for disposal of plastics in Europe.
When plastic is burned, there is a risk of dangerous emissions, including carbon dioxide emissions, just as when burning other fossil fuels. The advantage to incineration is that it generates energy, although efficient incineration requires modern facilities.
There are many mixed opinions about incineration. On the one hand, plastic waste contributes to producing large amounts of heat and energy. If this source were suddenly removed, many regions would be at a loss for energy sources. Compared to landfills, incineration is still a preferred end-of-life option, because the resources used for plastic production are used to create value more than once. There are, however, still environmental concerns.
What happens to different types of plastic when incinerated?
For fossil-based and bio-based plastics, incineration, along with recycling, is one of the preferred methods of disposal (or ‘end-of-life’ options, which is a term often used).
For biodegradable plastics, incineration is one of the least preferred options for disposal because of their potential for biodegradation.
Plastic recycling is the process of recovering used, waste, or scrap plastic and reprocessing the material into new products.
Some types of plastics can be chemically recycled, meaning they can be broken back down to their chemical building blocks, while others are mechanically recycled.
Different types of plastic can be recycled in different ways. While legislation around the world is currently working towards increasing recycling rates, the local methods and regulations for sorting and recycling continue to vary.
Because recycling schemes are different in different countries and regions, efficient recycling can be costly and energy-consuming. In addition, not all plastics are recyclable, and contamination can occur during the sorting and recycling process (from metals, dyes, biodegradable plastic, pharmaceuticals, etc).
Biodegradable plastics have the ability to decompose under specified conditions. Biodegradable plastics are regulated according to EN 13432.
The term should not be confused with the term bio-based plastic, as it is not safe to assume that bio-based plastics are biodegradable.
Many biodegradable products are designed to be compostable. However, in many cases, this compostability will only occur in the tightly controlled conditions of industrial composting facilities. Because of this, biodegradable plastics generally have to be sorted separately, and sorting schemes continue to vary from region to region.
Before choosing biodegradable plastics, it is important to check local waste management guidelines and local access to sorting and commercial composting. Otherwise, biodegradable plastics may not be the most sustainable choice.
About EN 13432
EN 13432 sets the standard for testing of products/packaging material according to their ability to biodegrade. It also sets the framework under which composting materials can biodegrade
Products tested for biodegradability according to European Standard EN 13432 are labelled with Din Certco if they comply with the standard.