Plastics definition for suppliers
Helping suppliers determine whether a material is plastic.
This definitions guidance applies to all single-use plastic items in the Plastics Reduction and Circular Economy Act 2021 (PRCE Act). It does not apply to reusable items and items that meet certain standards as identified in plastics guidance and where a specific exemption applies.
If you're not sure, adopt a precautionary approach to achieving compliance with the Act when ordering and supplying items. This might include switching to non-plastic alternatives.
What is plastic?
Under the PRCE Act, ‘plastic’ means the following, but does not include material excluded by the regulations:
- material made from or comprising organic polymers from plant extracts or fossil fuels, whether the material is processed, reprocessed, re-used, recycled or recovered,
- material prescribed by the regulations.
This definition is intentionally broad to capture innovations in material science. To guide its enforcement efforts, the EPA is focused on plastics as synthetic and semi-synthetic organic polymers, generally characterised by their ability to be moulded and shaped at moderate temperatures and pressures. Most plastics are thermoplastic, meaning they can be continually softened and reshaped by heat without significantly altering their properties. A smaller number of plastics are thermosets, made by the irreversible curing of a monomer solution into a plastic polymer, and do not have the property of thermoplasticity.
A polymer is a chemical comprised of many repeating chemical units called monomers, covalently bonded together. Polymers typically have vastly different mechanical, chemical and biological properties from their monomer constituents. Small chemical alterations to the monomers within a natural polymer, or the polymerisation of naturally occurring but not naturally polymeric monomers, may have significant impacts on the properties of the materials.
Natural polymers tend to readily biodegrade and, in the quantities already found in nature, their degradation products are important components of the ecosystems in which they occur. For this reason, natural polymers generally don’t create the same environmental harms that synthetic and semi-synthetic polymers do. In most cases, the EPA would not consider unmodified naturally sourced polymers to be plastics.
To be considered ‘natural’, the polymerisation process must occur in nature, independent of any extraction or production process, or any other human intervention. To be considered ‘unmodified’, there must be no systematic chemical modification to the monomer or its linkage to adjacent repeat units, nor any covalent linkages to other polymer chains that are not present in the natural polymer prior to extraction.
While natural polymers, such as plant material, can be used as inputs to the production of ‘bioplastics’, the polymer resulting from such a process is a plastic. It did not occur in nature and the natural polymer used as an input was modified to create it. The EPA as regulator has the discretion to determine whether a polymer is natural or unmodified, and whether a natural, unmodified polymer is a plastic.
Suppliers should take note that common terms used in plastic marketing like ‘bioplastic’, ‘oxo- degradable’, ‘green’ or ‘compostable’ do not affect whether a material is a plastic under the PRCE Act. The EPA considers materials meeting the definition of plastic are plastic regardless of whether they are processed, reprocessed, re- used, recycled or recovered. The ability of a material to biodegrade, or to be recycled, or composted either in home or industrial composting facilities does not affect whether the EPA considers it a plastic.
What is a plastic item?
If an item contains any amount of plastic, it is a plastic item. If an item contains an organic polymer that is not on the list of what is not considered plastic, take a precautionary approach and assume that the material is plastic and that the item is a plastic item.
In a very limited number of cases, it may not be possible to create a safe product without a negligible amount of plastic (for example, plastic adhesive to safely affix cotton to a wholly non- plastic cotton bud stem). If your product falls into this category for health and safety reasons only, and the product cannot be re-designed to eliminate the use of plastic, it is our position that you may continue to supply it. No other factors, including cost, convenience or aesthetics, are acceptable reasons for the inclusion of plastic in an otherwise prohibited item. This consideration is limited to the smallest possible amount of plastic that is needed to minimise risks to human health and the environment. It remains the obligation of suppliers to ensure they supply only lawful products.
Questions to ask your supplier
If you are unsure whether an item contains plastic, check with your supplier. Ask questions like:
- Can you confirm in writing that the items do not contain any form of organic polymer (except an unmodified natural polymer)?
- Can you provide an ingredient list with chemical structures and any additives included?
Check with us
It is your responsibility as a supplier to ensure you do not supply banned plastic items. We may be able to help if you aren’t able to determine whether a polymer is a plastic. You need to provide us with the following information:
- a detailed description of why you believe your product is not a plastic
- Standard Technical Specifications including ALL ingredients (inclusive of any ‘incidental’ ingredients) to support your determination
- the function served by the polymer
- the chemical structure of the polymer
- information (including reference material) on where the initial source material is produced
- information (including reference material) on where a natural polymer may be found in nature.
- Vegetable fibre, including bagasse
- Natural latex and rubber (with no plastic additives)
- high and low-density polyethylene
- polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- polyvinyl acetate (PVA)
- polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH)
- polylactic acid (PLA)
- polybutylene succinate (PBS)
- polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs)
- thermoplastic starch (TPS)
- acrylate polymers
- synthetic latex and rubbers
- 'aqueous' dispersions containing synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymers
Note: this list is not exhaustive and is subject to review.