Friday 09 June 2023

Hasso von Pogrell, European Bioplastics: “Why we support the European Union in making single serve units becoming mandatorily compostable”

Hasso von Pogrel: "The proposal of the Commission regards industrial compost and not home composting, the latter, however, being a difficult thing to standardize. With coffee capsules, compostability is the goal. Whether that is biobased, partly biobased, or only fossil based. In theory, something can be completely fossil-based and compostable, but in reality, these fossil-based polymers are always combined with biobased polymers, therefore they’re always at least partly biobased."

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MILAN – European Bioplastics (EUBP) is an association that counts 85 member companies, a network that has grown in the last years. We caught up with the Managing Director, Mr Hasso von Pogrell to comment on European Bioplastics’ support of making single-serve coffee units mandatorily compostable and the call on the European Union Parliament and Council.

What exactly does involve the EU policy framework on biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics and will it have uniform applications for every country in the Union?

“The framework has no legislative power, it merely serves as a source of information. The relevant legislation is the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, the proposal that came out end of last year from the European Commission. Within this proposal, the Commission itself suggests making a few applications mandatorily compostable, including the single-serve coffee and tea packaging. Since it’s a regulation and not a directive, it will need to be applied uniformly.”

In which way could the use of biobased plastics, and biodegradable and compostable plastics, change the coffee single serve system?

“It isn’t going to change much. Apart from the raw material being used, if the retailer is adding the coffee into the pods bought from a supplier, there won’t be any change. The real change is for those who are producing the packaging itself for coffee or tea: they will need to use compostable plastics instead of conventional plastics or aluminium in the case of the coffee pods.”

What does it mean for the final consumers, in terms of waste disposal?

“Coffee makes around 80% of the weight of the whole capsule and is very valuable to the compost if it ends in the bio waste bin. Today, most people throw the coffee capsules into the residual waste bin, and the coffee together with the packaging is, at best, incinerated, which demands lot of energy to burn the wet or moist coffee inside, or, at worst, landfilled, which leads to the release of methane as a result of package degradation. Coffee is itself compostable – in a so-called anaerobic situation it will produce methane instead of CO2, which is even much worse for the atmosphere.

Some systems are in place where the coffee pods, especially the aluminium ones, are being taken back and recycled, but this is less than 10%. The other 90% still end up in the residual waste.

However, with capsules, you will never get to a complete, 100% recycling rate. Machines would need to be set up all over the place, and people would need to bring their used coffee capsules, which is not practical.

Companies like Nespresso are already producing coffee in compostable capsules, which is a
progress. Some might think that aluminium capsules are more comfortable and sophisticated compared to plastic ones. However, this should not be a reason to stay with aluminium capsules. The reason why the Commission is at least considering making compostable capsules mandatory is quite simple: today you have three versions: the compostable ones – very few -, the aluminium ones, and those made from conventional or biobased plastic, but not compostable.

Today, operators of composting facilities don’t know what is entering their compost. They are not able to tell which capsules are compostable, so they just put them away and incinerate them or put them in landfills. They try to sort out everything that is visible that’s not compost or food waste.

But, if, after a short period, they can be sure to treat only compostable pods, they won’t need to sort them out any longer, which would then make the system work.”

Let’s have some clarity: what are the differences between biobased, biodegradable, and compostable plastics?

“We define bioplastics as being biobased, biodegradable or both. There are three ways: the ones that are fossil-based but still compostable, then those that are biobased but not compostable, such as Bio PET, Bio PE, Bio PP made from renewable resources; then there is the combination of both biobased and compostable.

The important difference is between biodegradable and compostable: biodegradable is like an umbrella term. To put it in a more humorous way, anything is biodegradable at the end of the day, but eventually it takes a few million years. It’s important to specify in what kind of environment, temperature, humidity and timing something biodegrades. When we talk about compostability, we mean something to be biodegradable in an industrial compost: there, there is a specific timing, temperature, humidity, and all this together
makes sure that something can be certified to be compostable.

The proposal of the Commission regards industrial compost and not home composting, the latter, however, being a difficult thing to standardize. With coffee capsules, compostability is the goal. Whether that is biobased, partly biobased, or only fossil based. In theory, something can be completely fossil-based and compostable, but in reality,
these fossil-based polymers are always combined with biobased polymers, therefore they’re always at least partly biobased.”

Is there technology that will produce these new materials, has it already advanced to the point where quality and sustainability is guaranteed, or is there more work to be done?

“Big brands are already producing compostable coffee capsules, and the quality is good enough.

Often when there is change in what people are used to and officialised by the law, the market innovates to find alternative solutions. I’m convinced that the quality will not be an issue by the time the legislation becomes a law.

As European Bioplastics we of course support the notion, though many brand owners would rather like to have the freedom of choice.

The European Commission together with the Parliament and the Council will need to decide on the final text of the Regulation. If it passes, compostable plastics producers will see a great market in the coffee business and will work to beat themselves in providing specific well-designed materials that not only compost as they should, but also that guarantee preserving the quality. It’s only a matter of time to find even better solutions.

Additionally, there will be a transitional time. Once the legislation is in place, there will be a few years (3-5 years) to do the transition, which gives the market time to come up with the needed innovations to match the trend.”

When is the turning point set for which this material substitution should become effective?

“The turning point is difficult to establish: the Commission as well as part of the Parliament would like to have this law down quite quickly, they’re trying to push it through before the end of this year ahead of the elections. But there are more elements to the proposal that still need to be finalised by different stakeholders. Therefore, it is going to be challenging for the Parliament and the Council to agree on the whole package within the next few months.”

And about that, is the support of an association like European Bioplastics relevant?

“Absolutely. We are a niche industry, with Bioplastics currently making up less than 1% of the entire plastic production for now. We’re growing and we’re looking to pass the 2% in the future, but until then, it’s very crucial for us to support this part of the legislation, because we are the only association with a genuine interest in this specific topic. There are other parts of the legislation that we are concerned about, but we strongly and fully support the case of some items to be compostable mandatorily.

We are worried that the Commission might only stick to those applications and then regulate that all others should not be biodegradable, but we say “you should leave the door open”, because there are still many other types of packaging that today aren’t being recycled because it’s not economically worthwhile. If packaging plastic was expensive, people would find value in recycling it. But in the current systems, where plastic is still cheap, nobody’s going to recycle small and contaminated packaging.”

So what should we expect five years from now-how should companies active in this market face new challenges in this segment?

“Companies need to observe the process of this legislation to get an idea of where it’s heading to within the next few months before deciding. If coffee capsules don’t become mandatorily compostable, would they however be allowed? Will there be a choice? or will the Commission turn all the way around and say that aluminium capsules will be collected and recycled? It’s essential therefore to see the overall direction of the legislation
before deciding.

As European Bioplastics we provide a platform for our member companies and anyone that is interested to find out more about bioplastics. Our members are ready to share the expertise andù solutions once the legislation of compostable coffee capsules come to pass.

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