Technological watch

Friend or foe: Stakeholder attitudes towards biodegradable plastic packaging in food waste anaerobic digestion

Consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to sustainability issues in the food supply chain and demanding retailers to keep pace with their changing expectations. The visual nature of plastic pollution has strengthened public awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging. Against this backdrop, biodegradable plastics have been promoted as an alternative to conventional polymers, offering the potential to tackle hard-to-recycle plastics while being compatible with food waste recycling. Given increased recognition of food waste as an untapped resource worldwide and the incoming policy mandating separate collections for household and commercial food waste across the EU from 2023, anaerobic digestion is a particularly promising strategy and can make an important contribution to the transition to circular waste management practices. However, currently no industrial standard exists for ‘digestible’ packaging. Our research addresses stakeholder attitudes towards the treatment of biodegradable plastic packaging in food waste anaerobic digestion. We conducted 19 semi-structured interviews with a range of stakeholders, including the biowaste recycling sector, retail, governmental bodies and environmental charities. Qualitative data were categorised into thematic nodes based on inductive and deductive strategies. Content analysis showed significantly divergent views on biodegradable plastics. Though most respondents acknowledged the merits of biodegradable plastics, concerns over their compatibility with the current anaerobic digestion infrastructure (e.g. systematic depackaging, retention times) and their ultimate biodegradability were raised. In light of these issues, potential solutions are discussed and the role that legislation and consumer education can play in ensuring that the anaerobic digestion sector can accommodate these novel materials are highlighted.

Publication date: 01/06/2021

Author: Sarah Kakadellis, Jeremy Woods, Zoe M Harris

Resources, Conservation and Recycling


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.