The first SAPEA webinar on Biodegradable Plastics attracted a large international audience of almost 170 on 4th February. The webinar brought together panellists from the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, SAPEA and the European Commission, to respond to the question, ‘Tackling plastic pollution: are biodegradable plastics the answer?’
The webinar was chaired by Professor Ole Petersen, Vice-President of Academia Europaea and Director of the AE Cardiff Hub. He outlined the role and purpose of the European Scientific Advice Mechanism, and its two principal elements, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and the SAPEA consortium.
Short opening statements were made by each of the panellists.
Dr Miriam Weber, a member of the SAPEA Working Group, emphasised that biodegradability is a systems property, related to proof of biodegradability within specific environmental conditions. Biodegradability must be considered on an application-by-application basis.
Professor Richard Thompson, also a member of the SAPEA Working Group, emphasised that the focus of the evidence review was on open environments. With that in mind, biodegradable plastics must be set within the context of the waste hierarchy and not considered as a solution to littering. Instead, society must re-use, reduce and educate on responsible use of the planet’s resources. There may be some opportunity for use of biodegradable plastics in instances where it is difficult to recover certain items from the natural environment. However, we need appropriate testing and standards, and to label items appropriately so that the user understands their proper use and disposal.
Professor Nicole Grobert, Chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, described what had led to the request from the European College of Commissioners to provide advice on biodegradable plastics. She highlighted the main recommendations of the Advisors to the European Commission.
Esther Kentin, Leiden University, moderated a lively Q&A session. Questions supplied by the audience were varied. They included questions on the biodegradability of certain polymers; the substitution of other materials for plastics; examples of how biodegradability could be understood as a system property; risks and the possible impacts on human health; the need for a databank on biodegradable plastics; the development of standards; and the global dimensions of the problem.
Silvia Forni, Policy Officer at DG ENV of the European Commission, spoke about next steps in policy development. She advised that creation of a policy framework was underway, and that further input and consultation would be sought. She acknowledged that the issue was not only about technology but also about user behaviour. For example, it was vital to ensure that biodegradable plastics did not lead to increased littering. A holistic approach is therefore essential and various strands of policy and regulation need to be brought together.
Watch the webinar
More about AE Cardiff’s work in Biodegradability of Plastics
Academia Europaea led the coordination of the forthcoming SAPEA Evidence Review on the Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment. Responsibility for management and delivery of the work was given to the AE Cardiff Hub. The SAPEA Evidence Review Report and the GCSA’S Scientific Opinion are available here.