In the evidence review report Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment conclude that biodegradable plastic has a role to play in reducing the accumulation of plastics in the environment. However, its role is limited to some specific applications. In other cases, including single-use packaging and plastic bags, it would be better to reduce the amount of plastic we use — or to re-use it, recycle it, or, where we can, compost it in industrial plants.

The SAPEA experts also stress that calling something ‘biodegradable’ does not mean that it will biodegrade in all conditions. Whether an item will biodegrade harmlessly depends not only on the item itself, but which environment it ends up in, what it breaks down into, and how long that takes. The working group consisted of seven eminent scientists nominated by academies – one of them professor Jukka Seppälä from Aalto University.

In their opinion, the advisors recommend:

  • limiting the use of biodegradable plastics in the open environment to specific applications for which reduction, reuse, and recycling are not feasible, rather than as a solution for inappropriate waste management or littering;
  • supporting the development of coherent testing and certification standards to realise the potential environmental benefits over conventional plastics;
  • to promote the supply of accurate information on the properties, appropriate use and disposal, and limitations of biodegradable plastics and their applications to relevant user groups.

The recommendations will contribute to the forthcoming Commission’s policy framework related to bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, and help define the main challenges and policy actions needed in this area.


Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) is a EU-funded project that provides independent scientific advice to European Commissioners to support their decision-making. SAPEA collaborates actively with European science academies.