03. Jun 2021

EC Commission stands firm: PHA is a non-natural polymer

EC Commission stands firm: PHA is a non-natural polymer

Published yesterday, the Final Guidelines to Directive (EU) 2019/904, known as the Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), struck a blow to Europe’s PHA industry by qualifying PHA as a non-natural polymer.

How can this be? The guidelines, state, among other things, that only polymers that qualify as natural polymers and have not been chemically modified are exempt from the Directive. They go to explain that ‘natural polymers are understood as polymers which are the result of a polymerisation process that has taken place in nature’.

And therein lies the rub: according to the European Commission, a ‘key distinction is whether the polymerisation process has taken place in nature or is the result of an industrial process involving living organisms. Based on the REACH Regulation and the related ECHA Guidance, polymers produced via an industrial fermentation process are not considered natural polymers since polymerisation has not taken place in nature’.

In response, GO!PHA, the global organization for PHA, has issued a statement, in which it calls the inclusion of polyhydroxyalkanoates in the Directive inconsistent with both the law and science. Expressing its disappointment, the organisation writes:

“The SUPD stops the development and growth of a class of high-tech, naturally occurring and renewable material in Europe. This class of materials are functional like plastics and compostable, recyclable and biodegradable (in nature, including marine environments) just like paper/cellulose, and they do not generate microplastics. Polyhydroxyalkanoates have the greenest manufacturing profile of all the natural materials that have been exempted from the directive.

PHA biopolymers have the potential to upcycle low value waste organic carbon generated in Europe. In fact, the European Union alone (not including the member states) has sponsored over 108 million Euros in research grants to valorise waste organic carbon to produce PHA. In addition, the PHA industry has the potential to create numerous new and highly skilled jobs in Europe. One manufacturer has put on hold plans to build a substantial volume PHA factory in Europe, which will now be built elsewhere.

The European Commission did not consider appropriately the loss to limited seating and small restaurants that do a sizable business in take-out meals. PHA single use packaging articles such as takeout containers, cups, plates, straws, and cutlery can be composted in home and industrial composters and they can be recycled, just like cellulose/paper products. If PHA articles are littered, unlike plastics and like paper, they would biodegrade in nature including in the oceans without generating microplastics. PHA has the in use functional profile of many popular fossil plastics that the SUPD has rightfully included in the directive, and PHA’s exclusion would have allowed the consumer to enjoy the same benefits of fossil plastics without the environmental pollution caused by fossil plastics, which was the primary inspiration behind the single use plastics Directive. Conversion from existing fossil plastics to PHA single use food packaging items would have reduced the negative impacts of litter and microplastics and continued to help the small take-out restaurants throughout Europe, especially during the pandemic due to the highly reduced in-restaurant dinning capacity.

It is disappointing to see that the 2019 impact assessment that the EU carried out prior to enacting Directive (EU) 2019/904 did not consider polyhydroxyalkanoates and the benefits it can bring to the above-mentioned stakeholders.

GO!PHA will continue to advocate for polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), as it is the only class of natural materials that are renewable, that offers the functionality of plastics, with the end of life profile that matches cellulose/paper, which includes both recycling and composting (home and industrial). If leaked into the environment PHA would biodegrade in all environments without generating microplastics.”


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