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Research and innovation
News article14 December 2020Directorate-General for Research and Innovation

New scientific opinion on the Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment

Today the European Commission’s independent Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GCSA) delivered a Scientific Opinion on the Biodegradability of Plastics in the Open Environment. In their opinion, the GCSA provides recommendations to assess which specific applications of biodegradable plastics in the open environment offer potential environmental benefits over conventional plastics.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

The Scientific Opinion on Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment demonstrates that scientific research is indispensable to inform policy-makers. I am confident that these recommendations will help us to deliver on the Green Deal and the Horizon Europe Missions Healthy Oceans and Soil Health.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said:

This report is an excellent example of the cooperation we need between academic research and policy makers, clarifying where using biodegradable plastics has clear environmental benefits. Its conclusions provide a sound basis for the policy framework for biodegradable and compostable plastics announced in the new Circular Economy Action Plan.

Nicole Grobert, Chair of the GCSA and Professor of Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford said:

The biodegradation of plastics is a complex process that depends on both the material itself and the conditions of the environment in which it takes place. Assessing which specific biodegradable plastic applications can offer environmental benefits requires careful consideration of both these factors and the behaviour of users.

There is a growing global demand for very durable, lightweight and versatile materials, such as plastic. This has led to an increased amount of plastic waste in the open environment, causing harm and pollution in land and marine ecosystems. Biodegradable plastics could be part of the solution to this problem, but they also present challenges. The Advisors note that biodegradability depends not only on the properties of the plastic material itself, but also on the environmental conditions. Many biodegradable plastic products actually biodegrade only in certain specific environments, or only in industrial composting facilities, rather than in the open environment more generally. 

The Advisors therefore 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. To realize the potential environmental benefits over conventional plastics, they recommend supporting the development of coherent testing and certification standards. There is also a need 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 informing 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.

The Opinion is informed by an Evidence Review Report produced by the SAPEA (Scientific Advice for Policy by European Academies) consortium. The Opinion builds on some of the recommendations of the Group’s previous Scientific Opinion on ‘Environmental and Health Risks of Microplastic Pollution’ published in 2019.


The European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GCSA) contribute to the quality of EU legislation through the provision of independent scientific advice to the Commission. The Advisors are seven eminent scientists, appointed in their personal capacities and who advise the Members of the European Commission on issues of public interest. The Advisors work closely with the Scientific Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) consortium, which gathers interdisciplinary expertise from over 100 academies and societies across Europe. A summary of the Advisors’ previous publications and their impact can be found in their February 2020 report, ‘Informing European Commission Policy Making with Scientific Evidence’.

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Executive Summary

One-page Summary

Green Deal

Plastic strategy


Publication date
14 December 2020
Directorate-General for Research and Innovation