Case Study on Standards: Biodegradable Plastic

As part of its 125th anniversary celebration, ASTM International invited case study submissions from committee members around the world, highlighting standards that have made a significant impact in society. Numerous exceptional submissions were received, making the work of ASTM’s panel of judges even more difficult in narrowing down the list to eight winners.

Standardization News will be publishing all eight winning entries throughout 2023, starting with the March/April issue. This study covers a set of standards for biodegradable plastic from the committee on plastics (D20) that have helped make our environment cleaner, our landfills less toxic, and our future brighter.

Identify the need for the development of this standard: What problem is this standard trying to solve? Who initiated the development of the standard?

Standard test methods for determining the biobased content of solid, liquid, and gaseous samples using radiocarbon analysis (D6866) allows industry, regulators, and government to experimentally determine the percent biobased carbon present in a product or fuel. There is movement in the U.S. and worldwide away from fossil carbon resources and toward plant-biomass carbon resources. The USDA “Biopreferred” program mandated by the U.S. Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill authorizes the procurement of biobased products by the federal government. This standard is required to be used to report the percent biobased content of product for federal procurement, as well as for labeling a product with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Biopreferred logo showing biobased content. 

Two other standards:

  • Standard specification for labeling of plastics designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (D6400).
  • Standard specification for labeling of end items that incorporate plastics and polymers as coatings or additives with paper and other substrates designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (D6868).

are companion specification standards for compostable plastics and paper coatings, respectively – redesigning plastic polymers for biodegradability in industrial composting for an environmentally responsible, managed end-of-life. Compostable plastics are next-generation polymer materials for packaging, disposable products, and hybrids with paper. At its end of life, these plastics can be safely and efficaciously treated along with food, paper, and biodegradable organic wastes in industrial composting.

There has been much confusion and some misleading claims about biodegradability and compostability in the marketplace. The ASTM standard specifications, grounded in strong science and driven by consensus, provided much-needed clarity and credibility for acceptance in the marketplace and by regulatory bodies in states like California, Washington, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. 

Which interest groups participated in the development and/or revision of the standard?

A broad group of stakeholders participated in the development of these standards. Industry represented by the compostable plastic resin manufacturers, major brand owners, state government organizations, the federal government (USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]), testing laboratories, and academia were active in their development.

How is this standard commonly used by industry?

The USDA Biopreferred program for federal procurement mandates D6866 as the only accepted standard for determining and reporting biobased content of products. It also outlines the use of the USDA logo. The U.S. EPA requires the standard for reporting on biobased content in fuels.

D6400 and D6868 are exclusively used by the industry for making claims of biodegradability under industrial composting conditions. They are also the basis of certifications issued by U.S. and European organizations. Many stakeholders demand that compostable products offered to them meet D6400 for plastics and D6868 for coatings on paper. Industrial composters also require certification that the compostable products are certified to D6400 for plastics and D6868 for coatings.

Since publication, how have these standards impacted health and safety?

D6400 and D6868 require strict eco- and phyto-toxicity tests to be conducted as part of the specification standard. In these standards, regulated metals should be 50% below that prescribed by the EPA. 

Thus, health and safety provisions are part of the specification standard requirements.

How do consumers and the public benefit from these standards?

Safe, biobased, biodegradable-compostable plastics are an enabling technology to divert food, paper, and biodegradable organic wastes from landfills to industrial composting. 50%+ of biodegradable organic wastes go to landfills or open dumps, leading to methane generation, which has a 25X GWP (global warming potential) impact. Recovery of 1.84 million tons of MSW biodegradable organic wastes through composting results in 1.74 million tons of CO2 equivalents of GHG emissions reductions. D6400 and D6868 provide the basis to ensure the compostable plastics are safely and completely biodegradable in industrial composting, leaving no persistent or toxic breakdown products. 

D6866 is required to account for carbon footprint reductions and driving the bioeconomy.

Can you provide data to support the safety, economic, or other impacts of the standard? If yes, please summarize the data and provide citations.

The USDA BioPreferred Program Catalog identifies biobased products that qualify for mandatory federal purchasing, are certified through the voluntary labeling initiative, or both. An economic impact analysis of the U.S. biobased products industry reports that $470B value was added to the U.S. economy; 4.6 million American jobs were added through direct, indirect, and induced contributions; there were $162B in direct sales and $309B in spillover sales.

While no numbers are available, the states of California, Washington, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and several others require the use of compostable packaging and products for food-waste diversion to industrial composting. D6400 for compostable plastics and D6868 for coatings and modifiers to paper are the designated specification standards that must be met.

Are you aware of any regulatory adoption (domestic or international) or broad international use of the standard? If yes, please provide details.

President Biden signed an executive order on September 12, 2022, to advance innovation for a sustainable, safe, and secure American bioeconomy and promote the purchase of biobased products. Federal law and Federal Acquisition Regulation directs all federal agencies to purchase biobased products in categories identified by the USDA. The USDA has also a voluntary labeling initiative for biobased products. D6866 is the primary standard used for the determination of biobased carbon content of biobased products.

California requires products labeled “compostable” to meet D6400. Washington requires third party certification of compostable plastics using D6400 or D6868 standards. Other states have similar requirements for the sale and use of compostable plastics.

To address the plastics waste crisis, the U.S. Plastics Pact and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Plastics Pact state the following:

  • 100% of plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
  • By 2025, undertake ambitious actions to effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastics packaging.
  • D6400 and D6868 specification standards must be met for claims of compostability.
  • By 2025, the average recycled content or responsibly sourced biobased content in plastic packaging will be 30%.
  • D6866 test method is the accepted standard to measure and report biobased content.

Do these standards address any of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

D6866, D6400, and D6868 are closely interrelated standards and address “SDG 13: Climate Action.” Switching from fossil carbon plastics to biobased plastics offers the value proposition of a reduced carbon footprint. This drive towards a responsibly sourced bioeconomy is served by D6866.

D6400 and D6868 specification standards provide the framework to document that newly designed compostable polymers are not persistent and biodegrade completely in industrial composting systems. They become the enabling technology to help divert food, paper, and biodegradable organic waste from landfills to composting, thereby reducing GHG emissions impact. 

D6400 and D6868 also address “SDG 14: Life Below Water,” specifically as it relates to microplastics pollution of the oceans. The biodegradable-compostable polymers will not persist or accumulate in an ocean environment, and will not form microplastics like today’s carbon-carbon backbone polyolefin polymers. 

All of these standards support “SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production,” as well as “SGD 15: Life on Land.” ■

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