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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Biodegradable Plastics - Developments and Environmental Impacts

Nolan-ITU Pty Ltd
Prepared in assocation with ExcelPlas Australia
October, 2002


Executive Summary

Biodegradable plastics are a new generation of polymers emerging on the Australian market. Biodegradable plastics have an expanding range of potential applications, and driven by the growing use of plastics in packaging and the perception that biodegradable plastics are 'environmentally friendly', their use is predicted to increase. However, issues are also emerging regarding the use of biodegradable plastics and their potential impacts on the environment and effects on established recycling systems and technologies.

Environment Australia, in consultation with the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA) has engaged Nolan-ITU, in association with ExcelPlas Australia, to undertake a national review of biodegradable plastics with the primary aim of identifying and characterizing emerging environmental issues associated with biodegradable plastics to assist industry and the Commonwealth to develop initiatives to address these issues effectively.

Terms of Reference

The Terms of Reference of the review are to identify issues of relevance including the following:

  1. Identify the various types and composition of biodegradable plastics available, and likely to be available in Australia.
  2. Identify standards and test methods for biodegradable plastics in Australia.
  3. Examine the range of disposal methods and identify the most frequent disposal option for each biodegradable plastic application at end of life.
  4. Identify current technologies to avoid contamination and sort biodegradable plastics in Australia and overseas.
  5. Describe and assess the current and potential future environmental impacts arising from the foreseeable increase in use of biodegradable plastics in various applications.
  6. Identify possible and existing solutions to identified impacts and limitations.

Key Findings

The range of biodegradable plastics available include:

There is a extensive range of potential applications. Some of these include:

Whilst several biodegradable plastics are used for these applications in Europe, the current market penetration into Australia is low.

Several standards and test methods apply to biodegradable plastics internationally, however here are currently no Australian standards and test methods for biodegradable plastics. There is a need to establish Australian Standards that match the potential application areas and disposal environments in Australia.

The major potential disposal environments for biodegradable plastics are:

To a large extent, the nature of the biodegradable plastic application should dictate the disposal environment.

The risk of contamination by biodegradable plastics of conventional plastics which are currently recycled and reprocessed is a significant one, and the resultant effects on recyclate has the potential to undermine the growing confidence in recycled plastics. Effective methods for sorting biodegradable plastics would be needed in the event of their significant entry into the Australian market. Possible methods include near infra-red detection, which can be used in a positive sort system, or the use of a specific polymer code, and even colour, to differentiate biodegradable polymers from other recyclable polymers.

There are several identifiable environmental benefits that may potentially be derived from the use of biodegradable plastics compared to conventional petroleum-based plastics. These are:

Biodegradable plastics also pose some adverse environmental risks. These include:

Key Recommendations

For the successful introduction of degradable plastics into Australia it is essential that for any new application that the following are clearly identified:

For this to be achieved it will be necessary to establish a national framework for standards and testing. This can be based upon appropriate international standards. It is recommended that the Federal Government, through Environment Australia and in consultation with the plastics industry, take an initiating role in undertaking further research and developing these standards.

Further research focus areas include: