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Compost: Plastics

Question for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

UIN HL1901, tabled on 12 July 2021

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the need for a UK (1) certification process, (2) verification process, and (3) labelling standards, for plastics labelled as home compostable, now that the UK has left the EU.

Answered on

26 July 2021

The Government's 25 Year Environment Plan sets out our ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. The Resource and Waste Strategy published in December 2018 focuses on increasing the reuse and recycling of plastics, in line with our ambition to transition to a circular economy in order to tackle plastic pollution.

The Government recognises that innovation into compostable plastics could help reduce the environmental impacts of plastic pollution. However, concerns persist that plastics which are claimed to be biobased, biodegradable, or compostable, if littered or otherwise released into the environment in an uncontrolled way, may not degrade quickly or even at all, and they can only be composted if they meet relevant standards.

The Government published a call for evidence in 2019 to help consider the development of product standards or certification criteria for bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics as well as to better understand their effects on the environment and our current waste system. Strong concerns were raised through the responses regarding the extent to which plastics marketed as biodegradable and compostable actually biodegrade in the open environment, and whether the use of such plastics could even encourage littering if citizens consider them to be in some way environmentally-friendly. Responses also highlighted the need to better understand the environmental impacts and any health implications from using compost containing partially-composted plastics, and we welcome further research on this.

The Government’s response to the call for evidence was published on 8 April 2021 which is in the enclosed document.

The British Standards Institute (BSI) are appointed by Government as the national standards body (NSB) in the UK. As such they are responsible for the development of standards in the UK and the subsequent certification and verification of products.

The European Union's EN 13432 standard has been adopted in the UK by the BSI as BS EN 13432. We have not made an assessment of this standard against the Australian and French standards. BS EN 13432 applies to industrial composting and there is not currently a standard for home composting. However, the BSI are running a project, BS EN 17427 Packaging: Requirements and test scheme for carrier bags suitable for treatment in well-managed home composting installations. Technical specifications and standards are an important step in ensuring that the materials we use behave as we expect and require them to. We will continue to monitor the extent to which these standards do, or do not, address the issues identified through our call for evidence, and will follow with interest any developments.

We recently consulted on measures to increase the consistency in recycling for a core set of materials to be collected from households for recycling and as compostable packaging is not generally collected for recycling, we have not included it as one of the recyclable waste streams named in the legislation. To be added as a waste stream, compostable packing would need to be proven suitable for recycling, including ensuring that end markets exist for the material. Additional investment in the waste industry would be required to support the widespread introduction of biodegradable and compostable plastics and avoid issues of cross-contamination and machine damage.

The evidence base is clearly still developing in relation to these new types of plastic, particularly in terms of their environmental impacts in comparison to alternatives. In accordance with the waste hierarchy, our current preference remains that most plastics are reusable or recyclable. We recognise though that in some applications and specific circumstances biodegradable/compostable plastics may be more suitable.