Recently I spoke with the owner of Roots and Rolls, a vegan Restaurant in Barcelona, about single use biodegradable plastic in restaurants. They want to be the city’s most plastic conscious restaurant, which in today’s world is complicated.
First of all it is hard to avoid single use plastic in the daily operations.
Second it is damn difficult to select the least harmful or best plastic. There world of labels, terms and phrases confusing the average restaurant owner.
Third, in our post on marine biodegradable plastic we saw that the world of (bio) degradable plastic labels is not as simple as it seems.
If you are looking for the least harmful plastics for your operations, keep on reading.
A guide biodegradable plastic labels in Restaurants
There are 8 different plastic biodegradable certification labels in Europe alone. The certification agencies in Europe may apply the norms differently. The most well known bio plastic certification agency is the TUV Austria. We recommend them as the leading certifying agency.
Definitions biodegradable plastics
Let’s start with the definitions for “biodegradable” , “bio-based” and “compostable” plastics.
Biodegradable: is defined as the physical decomposition of a product into tiny pieces. All plastics are bio degradable! It may take 1000 years but they are biodegradable.
Label Biodegradable plastic: not protected and can be used for all plastics.
Label Bio-based plastics: protected label in Europe, plastics that are partially derived from renewable materials (biomass and not petroleum).
Label Compostable plastics: protected label in Europe, plastics that are partially made of renewable materials and degrade into micro plastic within a certain time.
Compostable plastics are partially derived from renewable materials like corn, potato, sugar, tapioca starches, cellulose, soy protein and wood and are the least harmful for the environment.
Plastic producers must certify their plastic in order to use the term “compostable plastic”. The idea of compostable plastic is that these plastics decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass when composted.
Compostable plastics must be collected separate from other plastics and mixed with organic plant material on a compost site. However there is a very limited capacity for composting plastic in the western world. And plastic composting sites are non existent in the rest of the world. In many European countries, including Spain were we operate, do not allow compostable plastic within compost. So it ends up on the landfill.
When is a plastic Compostable?
The minimum requirements for getting the label “Compostable plastic” are summarized below:
- that after 12 weeks at least 90% of the plastic product must pass through a 2 x 2 mm mesh
- the biomass production of plants may not be affected by the influence of composted plastic packaging
- 90% of the materials have to be broken down by biological action within 6 months.
Biodegradable certificate: OK compost Industrial
The most common biodegradable plastic certificate is “OK compost Industrial”. This certificate complies with the requirements of the EU Packaging Directive ( 94/62/EEC) and EN13432.
One of the assumptions of this certificate is that plastic is decaying in constant heat conditions of 60 degrees Celsius in large industrial composting sites.
The infrastructure for processing this plastic is simply very limited available Europe let alone in the rest of the world. Therefor in Catalonia, Spain, the biodegrade plastic is removed from the compost (plants, fruits, and vegetables).
The OK compost Industrial standard sets limits for volatile matter, heavy metals (Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd, Pb, Hg, Cr, Mo, Se, As) and fluorine. Which means they may contain the above.
Biodegradable certificate OK compost home
TUV Austria has developed a biodegradable certificate called “OK compost home” for composting plastic at home. To obtain this certificate bio degradable plastic must decay in heat conditions of maximum of 30 degrees.
Composting in the garden is not popular in the western world. Besides, it is hard to create good compost with sufficient plant matter from only one house hold.
Label Biobased plastics
Biobased plastics have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint. This label specifics only the biobased content of plastics as a percentage of total weight. The highest score is a 4 star bio based label.
A label with 4 stars indicates that at least 80% is made from biomass. The other 20% could be anything.
A classification is established on the basis of the Biobased carbon content (BCC). This classification is symbolized by stars (between 1 and 4) featured in the logo:
- 1 star, 20% – 40%
- 2 stars 40% – 60%
- 3 stars 60% – 80%
- 4 stars more than 80% or more bio based content
The false promise of Compostable plastics
When it looks too good to be true it mostly is, and compostable plastics are no exception. Most compostable plastics are made with volatile matter, heavy metals (Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd, Pb, Hg, Cr, Mo, Se, As) and fluorine. Not the kind of stuff you want your baby picking from the ground.
The 90% rule, that means the remaining 10% can remain plastic forever.
Best option for single use biodegradable plastic in Restaurants
Only if you really need to use single-use biodegrade plastic in Restaurants we recommend using single use plastic with both the certificates
“4 star Bio based” and “OK compost home”.
We recommend these two labels because of 80% renewable content and the fast bio degradation of at least 90% within 6 months under relatively colder temperatures.
The disadvantages for single use compostable plastics are clear:
Firstly, like any product, uncontrolled bio based biodegradable plastic disposal leads to littering and pollution of the ocean. Bio based biodegradable polymers will brake down in 6 to 12 months. During this time the plastic is a potential harm to wildlife. After the plastic has degraded into micro plastic it still affects nature
Secondly using maize, corn and other crops to manufacture plastics, it taking away food destined for human consumption.