BEIJING, 17 December 2020 – Increased production of biodegradable plastics will not solve China’s plastics pollution crisis, a new report from Greenpeace East Asia shows. If the rush to produce biodegradable plastics continues, China’s e-commerce industry is on track to generate an estimated 5 million tonnes of biodegradable plastic waste per year by 2025 , the report reveals.
“Switching from one type of plastic to another cannot solve the plastics pollution crisis that we’re facing,” said Greenpeace East Asia plastics researcher Dr. Molly Zhongnan Jia. “Many biodegradable plastics require specific temperature and humidity conditions to break down, which are not found in nature. In the absence of controlled composting facilities, most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and the ocean.”
The term “biodegradable plastic” can be misleading. The majority of biodegradable plastics only degrade within six months in controlled compost facilities at temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius and carefully managed humidity conditions. China is home to few such facilities. Under typical conditions such as landfill, biodegradable plastics can remain intact for much longer than six months .
China’s biodegradable plastics industry has seen explosive growth in recent years, driven by legislation designed to reduce the volume of plastic waste. In January 2020, China’s government banned several types of single-use plastics, effective in major cities by the end of 2020 and nationwide by 2025. Notably, “degradable plastics” are exempt from the single-use plastics ban.
As of this year, 36 companies have planned or constructed new biodegradable plastic manufacturing facilities in China, with an added production capacity of more than 4.4 million tonnes, an increase of sevenfold in less than 12 months.
“This ‘biodegradables rush’ has to stop,” said Dr. Jia. “We need to take a cautious look at the effect and potential risks of mainstreaming these materials, and make sure we invest in solutions that actually reduce plastic waste. Reusable packaging systems and a reduction in overall plastic use are much more promising strategies to keep plastic out of landfills and the environment.”
Greenpeace East Asia urges that corporations and the government create clear action plans to reduce overall plastics use, prioritize the development of reusable packaging systems, and ensure that producers are financially responsible for the waste that they create through extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.
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 China’s State Post Bureau projects the growth rate for online delivery at 27.6% per year. Based on 2019 fieldwork, Greenpeace East Asia estimates that 9.05% of online delivery packaging is made of plastic. According to the 2017 policy, “Guiding Opinions on Coordinating the Promotion of Green Packaging in the Express Industry,” 50% of plastics used in online delivery must be biodegradable by 2020. The 2020 policy “Opinions of the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecological Environment on Further Strengthening the Treatment of Plastic Pollution” requires the complete elimination of non-degradable plastics in online delivery by 2025. Greenpeace East Asia’s calculation assumes no reduction in overall plastics use and that conventional plastics used in online delivery are replaced by biodegradable plastics.
 Vaverková, M. D. and Adamcová, D. “Degradation of Biodegradable/Degradable Plastics in Municipal Solid-Waste Landfill.” Polish Journal of Environmental Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1071–1078.