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Issue 06/2022

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Highlights: Films / Flexibles / Bags Consumer Electronics Basics: Chemical Recycling K'2022 review

Report If you don’t

Report If you don’t break down – you fail. If you do break down – you also fail. When examining the degraded bioplastic samples, Thomas Fischer, Head of Circular Economy at the DUH showed small flakes of disintegrated PLA cups into the press cameras and called these a severe problem. These small particles, he called microplastics, cannot be sieved out of the compost and are seen as contaminants. As a result, the whole batch of compost needed to be incinerated and could not be sold as compost, according to Mr. Fischer. Had the composting phase been a bit longer, these flakes would probably have been completely degraded. DUH shows flakes of disintegrated PLA cups. bioplastics MAGAZINE took a sample of this compost-fraction and after another three weeks of (home) composting, the picture is indeed significantly different. The left photo shows the PLA particles we could separate from approx 0.2 litres of compost. Missed opportunity or trials made in bad faith? The German Association for Compostable Products (Verbund kompostierbare Produkte e.V., Berlin, Germany) is severely disappointed in view of this experiment. In particular, the selection of the tested products as well as the composting conditions are considered misleading. “In general, we welcome any trial that examines how well our members’ products compost”, says Michael von Ketteler, Managing Director of the association. “However, in this trial we see fundamental flaws, the results of which were foreseeable before the trial began. An opportunity was missed here”. Yet, looking at the results and the (premature) reaction of the DUH leaves a bad taste in our mouths. The statement of the DUH calls (certified) claims of compostability “fraud” aimed to mislead consumers with the goal of making a quick buck on the back of the environmentally conscious. These brazen claims not only attack a whole industry trying to bring progress but also patronises consumers – and the environmentally conscious consumer tends to know what is and isn’t allowed in the bio bin. Trial violates waste legislation Peter Brunk, chairman of Verbund, warns: “Non-certified products, such as a shoe, have no place in the organic waste bin, please”. Except for certified compostable biowaste bags, no other products may be disposed of in the biowaste bin or in composting facilities, according to the current (German) biowaste ordinance. Thus, in the DUH composting experiment, there is a clear violation of the current organic waste law for almost all tested products. “I have major scientific and waste law concerns about this experiment. It gives the general public a completely false impression”, criticises Peter Brunk. Composting made in Germany – is the DUH barking up the wrong tree? “We advocate for sustainable lifestyles and economies”, the (German version of) the website of the DUH proudly proclaims while standing shoulder to shoulder with the German composting industry which, at large, has been against biodegradable plastics for as long as they are in the market. Let’s examine how the business of composting works in Germany and what the purpose of composting is, to begin with. The German business model of composting works via a gate fee, a composter gets a certain fee per tonne of biowaste that goes through the plant. This explains why the cycle times of German composting facilities are so short that even yard trimmings seem to have trouble properly decomposing in the given time frame as proven by the recent DUH experiment. The German system is a problem focussed system – there is biowaste that we don’t want in landfills that we need to deal with, preferably quickly. Now, the DUH says that they are active not only on the national, but also on the European stage, so let’s look at another European composting system – for example Italy. 46 bioplastics MAGAZINE [06/22] Vol. 17

In a recent presentation during the Bioplastics Business Breakfast, Bruno de Wilde, Laboratory Manager of Organic Waste Systems (OWS – Ghent, Belgium) cited a study [2] comparing the two systems. One core focus of the study was how much kg of organic waste per person per year ends up in composting facilities – and therefore not in landfill. In Germany, it was 20-25 kg in 2010 and 25 kg in 2020 – hardly any progress. In Italy on the other hand, it was 10-15 kg in 2010 and 60 kg in 2020, more than double the amount than in Germany. The Italians seem to have done a much better job than the Germans in increasing the amount of organic waste that ends up in composting – why is that? The difference seems to be philosophical in nature, it’s fundamentally in how bio-waste is seen – in Germany it is seen as a problem, in Italy as an opportunity (as it is also the case in e.g. Austria, Spain and other European countries around Germany). Italy has a problem with desertification and soil erosion, high-quality compost is a remedy for these issues and helps to promote “sustainable lifestyles and economies”. Compost has a more intrinsic value in Italy, while in Germany the focus is more on throughput. The Italian system is solution driven and open to change. Let’s take the example of one of our failed test subjects – coffee capsules. Used coffee grounds are great for compost quality and a huge quantity of coffee is in coffee capsules usually made from aluminium or plastics. If the plastic is compostable, it is a great way to deliver the coffee to the composters. This is also not a problem in Italy because, as opposed to Germany, compost quality is of higher importance than throughput – compost cycle times are longer to increase quality and create a mature compost (according to de Wilde, German compost tends to be immature compost). Longer cycle times also allow for compostable plastics to properly break down – they even bring an added value in form of the coffee (in the example of coffee capsules). Compost quality and rigid systems Why does this comparison between Italy and Germany matter? A harsh view of the German system could be, that it is rather rigid and only values total volumes of waste dealt with in the shortest amount of time – anything that doesn’t break down in that time, is a problem. The Italian system seems more solution-focused, and more open to change, which in the last decade has led to more biowaste diverted from landfill – one of the main reasons we do composting. The argument here is not that German compost is by definition of inferior quality but rather that the system seems to value throughput over quality – it is designed that way. And the DUH is not wrong to say that bioplastic materials, even certified ones, should not end up in a system that is not designed for them – and looking at the timeframes of certification and the reality of composting cycles in Germany that argument holds some water. And in the design phase of any application where biodegradability and compostability are being considered, we should always ask, “why should we do this – what is the added value?” – and if there is none, don’t make it biodegradable/ compostable! To question and criticize the cases that don’t add value is right and important. Yet, in case added value can be German language version available at provided by compostable items, this should be acknowledged, take for example biowaste collection bags or compostable fruit and vegetable bags – and use such products, also in Germany, rather than generally disapproving the concept of biodegradability, not differentiating thoroughly enough. And advocating for sustainable lifestyles and economies is noble and worthwhile and it is good that the DUH has these goals, but maybe the problem lies not with biodegradable and compostable plastics, but with a gate fee system that rewards shorter cycle times. Wouldn’t it be more sustainable and lead to better compost when, e.g. coffee from coffee capsules ends up in our compost? Sure, one could argue that there are perhaps recycling schemes that are suitable for those, but do they work properly (it’s not like recycling these applications is always easy, economical, or ecological)? We see these materials can work in a composting system, supported by rules and guided by certifications. The DUH could, for example, invest some of its resources in investigating the opportunities and the potential a system change might have for sustainable lifestyles and economies – and by extension the German consumer. Conclusions The DUH is a German organization and by all means should focus on what is best for Germany, German consumers, and the German environment. In Germany, only biowaste bags are allowed in the biowaste collection system and for good reason. And if handled properly, these will completely break down in industrial composting environments. Yet, it is always easy to defend the status quo, and to indulge in plastic bashing – however, to critically evaluate or even try to change a system is difficult. There is a strong argument against using compostability claims for marketing, especially if these claims are not based on third-party certification. Biodegradability and compostability, as attributes, only make sense if they actually add value to a product – and a biodegradable shoe sole brings added value (reducing microplastics created by wear and tear while using the shoe), but perhaps it’s something that should simply be done, but not be advertised with, to avoid customer confusion. To call all such claims “advertising lies” and “fraud”, as the DUH does in its press release is, however, arguable as well (we are not saying that there is no greenwashing – but these things are rarely all or nothing in nature). At the end of the day, we see the whole experiment as a biased and poorly performed action with only one goal – bashing bioplastics. We would wish that the DUH would be a bit more ambitious in its attempts, to operate with scientific rigour and arguments based on hard facts when promoting “sustainable lifestyles and economies”. And at the very least – wait until a test is actually finished before proclaiming it a failure. [1] [2] Vink, E. et al; The Compostables Project, Presentation at bio!PAC 2022, online conference on bioplastics and packaging, 15-16 March, organized by bioplastics MAGAZINE Opinion bioplastics MAGAZINE [06/22] Vol. 17 47

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