Four Plastics Companies Commit to Biodegradable Plastics

BRUSSELS, Belgium, February 16, 2005 (ENS) - Four large plastics companies have voluntarily committed themselves to using biodegradable and compostable polymers to manufacture packaging materials. A 10 year Environmental Agreement signed by the four companies and recognized by the European Commission includes a certification plan for ensuring quality control and a labeling plan to ensure ease of waste handling.

The manufacturers who have committed themselves to the Environmental Agreement are key players in the biodegradable plastics market - BASF of Germany, Cargill Dow of the United States, Novamont of Italy, and Rodenburg Biopolymers of The Netherlands.

The industry sector with the greatest use for biodegradable plastics is the packaging sector - food containers, wraps, nets, foams. Production of plastic bags for the collection and composting of food waste and as supermarket carrier bags alone takes up 38 percent of total consumption.

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Clear rigid produce boxes like this one will be increasingly be made of corn based plastic. (Photo courtesy Innovations EU)
The clear rigid bioplastic packaging includes containers for bakery, dairy, deli, meats, and produce, disposable plates and bowls, cold drink cups and cutlery, water, milk and juice bottles.

The biodegradable and compostable polymers will be made from agricultural renewable raw materials, alone or in combination with petroleum based polymers, the agreement states.

To be considered biodegradable, 90 percent of the polymers must break down within three months, and must meet tests for toxicity and safety.

The companies were encouraged in their undertaking by the European Commission. Vice-President Günter Verheugen welcomed the initiative, which was signed last November, but only made public on Monday. The Commission plans no legislative actions with regard to biodegradable plastics.

"We are actively encouraging such initiatives by the private sector, Verheugen said. "They are an alternative to 'hard' legislation that is a central element of the Commission’s zeal to regulate in a better and simpler way."

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Biodegradable, corn based bioplastic dinnerware by Danish designers Papcorn (Photo courtesy )
In a letter to the European Union introducing the self-commitment, Dietrich Wittmeyer General Secretary of the European Renewable Raw Materials Association, said the initiative was "born out of the need, as we see it, to put into practice the principles of sustainable development, thereby adding value to our industry, but also to society at large..."

New polymers manufactured by Cargill Dow are already in use at Columbia University in New York City. Containers made of processed yellow corn look and feel the same as the old-style petroleum plastic ones.

The packaging, known as NatureWorks, is made up of 20 to 50 percent less petroleum than plastic packaging, said Cargill Dow. The company says this percentage is significant because fossil fuels are a rapidly depleting and non-renewable resource. "Producing the product also releases significantly fewer greenhouse gases than do plastic containers," the company said.

Students says they cannot tell by look or feel the difference between the older petrolum plastic food containers and the new biodegrable ones.

Rather than wasting food, NatureWorks PLA alleviates the problem of food overproduction in the United States. Commonly available yellow corn is overproduced by about 10 percent annually, and manufacturing NatureWorks PLA employs just under 0.5 percent of this surplus.

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Biodegradable and compostable clear cups are hard to tell by look or feel from conventional plastic cups. (Photo courtesy Nat-UR Store)
While plastic poses a challenge for waste management, the new containers are biodegradable. In compost settings, NatureWorks PLA decomposes naturally within 47 days.

"Anything that reduces the waste that this university produces is a great thing," said Jessica DeCamillo, a senior at Columbia and the community coordinator for the Earth Coalition. In the future, she hopes, all plastic products, such as cutlery and cups will be replaced by biodegradable polymers.

The plastics industry's self-commitment will be managed by the International Biodegradable Polymers Association & Working Groups (IBAW) and progress will be assessed every two years.

Between them these companies represent over 90 percent of the European market for biodegradable plastics and have a similar share of the current global market. Other companies are welcome to join the consortium in the future as long as they are willing to meet the standards of certification and labeling now established.