Demand for sustainable products has been growing among consumers, leading brand owners to a desire to shift away from nonbiodegradable plastics in single-use articles. This shift has bolstered efforts toward developing alternative materials that are ideally both derived from renewable sources (biobased) and biodegradable in various environments: soil, landfill, marine, and freshwater. In turn, legislation has been proposed in the EU, select US states, and China toward adopting more sustainable alternatives for single-use plastics in the CPG and F&B industries.
In May 2018, the European Commission proposed a Single-Use Plastic Directive, which builds on the reduction in consumption of single-use plastic carrier bags due to EU legislation in 2014 and on the newly revised EU waste legislation, which includes targets for the recycling of plastics. The directive was developed to “target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. These products are the biggest part of the problem. Together they constitute 70% of all marine litter items.”
Various single-use articles and their packaging will not be allowed to be produced from “plastic,” as it is defined by the directive. The directive is very specific about which materials can be used in the future: Polymers that are naturally occurring and have not been chemically modified are to be exempt from the new regulations, whereas plastics that are manufactured from modified natural polymers, renewable sources, or fossil or synthetic feedstocks will not be exempt.
The proposed legislation is a great push in the direction of reducing our dependence on plastics in single-use applications and in encouraging the development of benign, naturally occurring plastic alternatives. The challenge is clearly defining what is meant by replacing current plastics with exclusively “sustainable materials.” Such legislation could have huge implications on manufacturers who are exploring viable alternative materials. For example, polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is an innovative material that exists naturally, uses renewable sources such as waste carbon sources for its production, and is biodegradable in soil, fresh water, and marine environments — much like cellulose, which is exempt from the guidelines. In fact, the EU has sponsored research and innovation projects worth over €110 million to convert waste carbon sources into PHA for packaging, including single-use plastics.
So how will the best alternative polymers be defined so that consumers, producers, and the environment can all benefit?
Here, our Technical Director of Consumer Packaged Goods, Daniel Morales, interviews Anindya Mukherjee to determine how the legislation will drive changes in the EU plastics markets to define acceptable, “more sustainable” materials. Anindya Mukherjee is a cofounder of Go!PHA, a nonprofit launched in 2019 to raise awareness about the material globally. It is backed by more than 40 leading industrial and academic members.
Can you provide an overview of the Single-Use Plastic Directive in the EU and its current status?
The Single Use Plastics Directive, also known as Directive (EU) 2019/904, was enacted to reduce the effects of plastics that were left primarily on the beaches and public areas in the EU. The EU did a study and found that up to 60,000 tons of debris are improperly discarded in the EU every year, out of which > 80% was plastic, including takeout (called “take away” in Europe), food and beverage containers, and packaging.
In Article 3 of the directive, the definitions themselves are given. In essence, natural polymers that have not been chemically modified have been exempted. This definition of natural polymer is quite tricky and has been the subject of numerous interpretations. The natural polymers themselves do not have to be present in nature in their native form; however, their extraction process must not chemically modify the natural polymer. PHA, although naturally occurring and not chemically modified, is not considered a natural polymer since it is produced via fermentation, which the EU classifies as an industrial process. There is evidence in other EU legislation that fermentation-based products that are found in nature (namely food and feed and related additives) can be deemed to be natural, as in beer, wine, cheese, sauerkraut, etc.
In March 2021, the member states of the European Union are supposed to give their final feedback and officially adopt the guidelines on the SUP Directive. That document published in December 2021, and containing the final guidelines, has faced objections from a group of 20+ MEPs who claim that the latest guidelines do not comply with the original directive. I agree with the MEPs. In the latest guideline, paper, which is known to be a natural polymer (cellulose) that has been chemically modified, has been deemed to be sustainable (which it is) but does not comply with Article 3 (the definition of exempted materials) of the directive.
What types of products specifically are we talking about here? Are they banning single-use plastics for every material that contains plastic, or is it focused only on food packaging?
What they’re banning is any takeout food containers that have, for example, Styrofoam clamshells, forks or knives made of polystyrene, straws made of polyethylene or polypropylene; these polymers are all considered to be synthetically produced and therefore not complying with Article 3 of the directive. A table of the specific products that apply to this initiative is provided below.
How are natural polymers defined?
Natural polymer, in the latest guideline, is defined as a polymer synthesized in nature but not necessarily existing in its pure or native form. Cellulose in wood is mixed with other items such as lignin. But cellulose extracted from wood, as long as its natural characteristics, such as molecular weight, have not changed, would be considered as a natural polymer under this guideline and would be exempted.
PHA cannot be used. Viscose cannot be used. The guideline mentions that paper is more sustainable and therefore would be exempted. It is well established that paper is a natural polymer (cellulose) that has been chemically modified. This guideline mentions sustainability for the first time, without having defined it. The original legislation also does not mention or exempt established sustainable materials.
This issue of exempting paper despite it being a natural polymer that has been chemically modified and therefore not meeting the original legislation demonstrates that the criteria used in the directive to reduce pollution requires revision. This is also demonstrated by the process the commission used to exempt or ban other materials such as viscose, lyocell, and PHA.
It seems like the focus of the SUP Directive is all about the beginning of life of the polymer and not the end of life. For example, just because you have a natural bio-based polymer, that doesn’t mean that it’s biodegradable. Does the single-use plastic initiative define end-of-life degradation requirements?
The intent and the spirit of the Directive is to reduce plastic pollution, especially those materials that we know would end up in the oceans and cause plastic pollution. If the commission now deems paper not to be one such material, then the commission must revise the definitions in Article 3. I agree that the more important aspect of using materials that can end up as litter is to ensure that they are biodegradable. If the commission deems paper to be one such material, then PHA must also be exempted from the ban, since both PHA and paper have similar biodegradation characteristics. The legislation as written would allow for wood or cotton or cellulose to be used.
What was the initial underlying motivation for the SUP directive, and how did they end up with the current natural polymer designation?
Europe is quite advanced with respect to capturing waste compared to other countries. In Germany, for example, plastics collection is greater than 90%. But the last 10% is where the problem lies. This last few percent is what ends up being littered, and the SUP Directive tries to address that. In order to remove the last 10%, the use of many single-use plastics needs to be curtailed. And in doing so, innovative, high-tech, and highly sustainable materials such as PHA are being banned, even though PHA is not even considered to be a plastic.
To address this challenge of litter reduction, the EU thought that they’d go for the natural polymer definition. It is interesting to note that not all natural materials biodegrade easily. Lignin, for example, can take a very long time to biodegrade. GO!PHA was in its formative stages in 2018 when the initial impact assessment on litter was done and drafting this legislation started. We have not seen any evidence that PHA was assessed by the commission.
While the inspirations behind such legislation are not always easy to understand, one of the effects of the SUP Directive would be reduction in consumption of single-use plastics and of articles and items such as food and drinks that are either packaged or served in single-use plastics. Could it be that the parliament and the commission want to reduce consumption of many of these items in the EU?
What is the argument against defining PHAs as biobased polymers?
Evidence that PHA occurs in nature is irrefutable. The microorganisms that produce PHA commercially have all been isolated from nature. About 40% of the world’s bacteria produce different types of PHA as a carbon source when they are nitrogen or other nutrient constrained, because they believe that starvation mode may be approaching. They then make and store PHA as a carbon source for later survival when they reach starvation (external food/carbon/energy).
Since they consume PHA during starvation, PHA is also naturally biodegradable. PHA is produced from carbon that occurs naturally, like cellulose, fatty acids, sugars, waste carbon, etc.
Therefore, PHA is a natural and renewable material; however, the commission contends that producing PHA commercially requires large-scale fermentation, which in itself is an industrial operation, although one can argue that cheese or wine or beer, which are all made via fermentation in large quantities, are labeled frequently as natural products. Therefore, the commission’s contention in the latest guideline that industrially produced PHA is not natural finds few believers.
So, when we say PHA, that is actually — I’m sure, as you know — a huge family of polymers. You have PHBs. You have all the various copolymers within that subset. So when we say PHA, that implies everything included all the subsets within PHAs.
You are correct that PHA is a class of natural polyesters. At last count, 150 different monomers have been identified within the PHA family of polymers. Therefore, when we say PHA, we technically refer to polymers made from all these monomers. However, the reality is somewhat different. To date, polymers having around 5-10 different monomers have been thoroughly tested, and only about 7 such PHA polymers are being produced at commercial scale.
What is the argument against defining viscose as a biobased polymer?
Viscose is derived from cellulose. It is essentially cellulose that is chemically modified. Therefore, viscose is a biobased or renewably sourced polymer; but under the SUP Directive, it is a chemically modified natural polymer.
Which biopolymers should companies invest in regarding nonwoven fibers if PHA becomes banned?
PHA is scheduled to be banned as a single-use packaging material in Europe. In North America and in Asia, two other major markets for PHA, legislation is mostly directed towards resolving the end-of-life issues — composting, recycling, etc. Companies could use cotton fibers, or some purer form of cellulose, that have not been chemically modified for nonwovens in the EU and plan to use PHA in other regions of the world.
The use of PHA as a natural and biodegradable material and an alternative to many fossil plastics will not be closed in Europe with the implementation of the EU 2019/904, the SUP Directive. The EU’s own academic advisory body, SAPEA, has recommended that biodegradable materials are high tech and suitable for many applications, therefore their use must not be hindered. We, therefore, will continue to advocate for the use of PHA in single-use articles, even in the EU, and elsewhere as well.
Which biopolymers should companies invest in as alternatives to PET packaging if PHA becomes banned?
PET is an excellent material for bottles, especially when you need a barrier to gas transmission. It is also quite inexpensive. Several newer materials have been touted as biobased or renewably sourced, such as PLA, or FDCA. However, there aren’t any natural materials as defined by the SUP Directive to replace PET.
PHA comes closest to being a natural material that can replace PET. Paper coated with PHA is an alternative, but this is still not commercial (see the Bacardi partnership with Danimer Scientific).
So at the end of the day, if the SUP Directive is passed as is, what would be left to work with regarding single-use plastics in the EU?
It appears that if the current guideline is implemented, only paper and lyocell would be allowed. The MEPs have objected to plastic-coated paper being exempted, since the commission had determined that there aren’t any alternatives to such packaging for beverages and food. In addition, paints, coatings, and adhesives used to label products would also be allowed, despite most of them being synthetic polymers.
Can you provide a timeline of when such initiatives will be adopted in North America? Has there been any indication of any sort of sweeping single-use plastics initiative at the federal level or only bills being pushed at the state level only, currently?
A bill that did not pass last year has just been reintroduced in the US House called the “Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act.” We are studying it to understand how it might affect PHA. If PHA were to get an exemption from EU Directive 2019/904, we would have a good basis for obtaining such an exemption in the US. Otherwise, we would be starting from scratch in the US. Canada could also pose a problem if we do not get favorable treatment from the EU. We are evaluating how to approach the legislative space worldwide, including being involved in standards bodies to revisit biodegradability standards, for example.
Most legislation is being pushed at the state level. Each state has different requirements, and they are doing different things. California, Washington, and New York are leading. There is draft legislation on the table in California for potential passage this year that didn’t pass last year. We are reviewing that at the moment. And we are also going to contact the relevant stakeholders to try and ensure that it favors PHA. PHA is unique among biopolymers; it is similar to cellulose. If you can collect PHA, you can compost or recycle. If PHA leaks into the environment, it would biodegrade, and cellulose is the only other material that would do that. Due to this unique situation, we need to ensure that PHA is recognized as different from plastics. In fact PHA, like cellulose, is a biopolymer, but it is not a plastic.
The US has banned all microbeads, including those that are made with PHA (2015 federal legislation). We will revisit this to ensure that PHA is recognized for what it is: a biodegradable, natural material. In fact, the European microbeads legislation mentions PHB, one of the PHA polymers, as the standard for measuring biodegradability. We hope that we can bring this information to the US policymakers.
Can you provide a timeline of when such initiatives will be adopted in the APAC region?
China has legislated a single-use plastics directive that is based on the end-of-life options of the plastic and includes nonbiodegradable plastic bags, single-use plastic tableware, disposable plastic objects in guesthouses and hotels, and plastic bags in express delivery.
The Chinese directive allows for the use of those materials as single-use articles that would compost in industrial or home composting facilities. However, China is lacking appropriate standards to measure biodegradability or compostability, and this part would take some time before it catches up with the legislation. It is also an opportunity for us to work with the Chinese authorities on advising them on appropriate standards development.
How has legislation for single-use plastics been affected due to the current increase in production caused by the Covid-19 pandemic?
In Europe there seems to have been no change, but I cannot comment on other countries definitively. But it appears that there has been, so far, no effect, positive or negative.
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