How a plastics plan could make our lives better

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Fifty years ago, in the film ‘The Graduate’, Dustin Hoffman was offered a memorably succinct piece of career advice at a cocktail party by a well-meaning, middle-aged neighbour. “I want to say one word to you. Just one word”, the friend says “Plastics”.

At the time, plastics were still new enough to be seen as cheap, artificial, boring and a movie punchline. Today, they can also be exciting, innovative, beautiful and brilliant, with products ranging from luxury jewellery to life-saving heart valves. But while plastics have overcome aesthetic image problems, scattered plastic waste is now a global environmental issue.

The European Union has taken some steps this year to addressing the problem with two policy decisions taken within days of each other in January.

The first was the publication by the European Commission on 26 January of a road-map for its planned plastics strategy, outlining the Commission’s work so that stakeholders can give feedback and offer ideas. It comes more than 18 months after EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella complained about the low recycling rates for plastics, and it addresses three persistent environmental difficulties facing plastics:
• The heavy dependence on oil to make plastics: 90% of plastics come from fossil fuels, and production emissions amount to some 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. The Commission wants a long-term, decoupling of plastics production from virgin fossil feed-stock and life cycle greenhouse gases.
• The low recycling and reuse rates, with more plastic going to landfill or incineration (only 30% of the 25 million tonnes generated in the EU in 2014 was collected for recycling). The rate varies from 12.4% in Malta to 99% in Germany. The EU’s own rules on the presence of hazardous substances in recycled materials makes it harder for recyclers to stay competitive against virgin material producers; there are weak economic incentives for a market for recycled plastic materials; and there is a low recyclability as many plastic products are designed to be thrown away.
• Too much waste is ending up in the environment, particularly in the ocean. Between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastics end up in the environment every year, of this up to half a million tonnes of plastic product enters European seas each year. This damages marine-related biodiversity, human health and the economy. Without much consumer awareness on the problem, or clear guidelines, there are few incentives for consumers to keep plastic wastes in controlled circuits.

The Commission says it will publish its full strategy for plastics in the circular economy at the end of 2017, looking at options covering chemicals, products and waste legislation. This is now a critical time to engage.

The second big EU decision on plastics came on January 24, the European Parliament moved to raise the EU’s recycling and landfill targets. MEPs in the Environment Committee voted to boost the share of packaging waste to be recycled to 70% by 2030, from 44% today, while limiting landfilling to 5%, as they amended the draft EU “waste package” legislation.

While the vote on six circular economy bills for waste, packaging, landfill end-of-life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment covered more than just plastics, there was a clear message for the industry. The MEPs also voted to limit the share of municipal waste to be landfilled to 5% by 2030. Both targets had been weakened by the Commission last December, as it amended its original circular economy package, but the MEPs said they wanted to restore the ambition of the 2014 package. MEPs will vote on the issue at the full parliament plenary session in Strasbourg in March, before beginning negotiations with the Council of Ministers on a compromise over these new goals.

With two measures in one week, the EU has shown that it is addressing some of the problematic aspects of a modern industry, not least because plastic waste cuts across a large number of policy fields and regulations are not specifically targeted. This makes it difficult for policy to evolve in line with trends in production, use and disposal.

While plastics have been on the EU agenda for many years, progress has been slow. At the end of 2015, the Commission incorporated a strategy on plastics into its action plan for the circular economy. It followed a 2013 Commission green paper on a European plastic waste strategy, looking at the public policy challenges of making plastic products more sustainable over their life cycle. And in 2011, a Commission report noted the “negative environmental externalities” of plastic waste: it is usually non-biodegradable; it may pose risks to human health as well as the environment; and it can be difficult to reuse and/or recycle in practice.

But it is high time that the EU had clear policy on one of the most essential building blocks of today’s economy. Global plastics production has grown exponentially from 1.5 million tonnes per year in 1950 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. It is expected to reach up to 1.2 billion tonnes annually by 2050.

Last September, a network of 90 NGOs from around the world including names like Greenpeace, Oceana, the Story of Stuff Project, GAIA, 5Gyres and Clean Water Action came together under the banner ‘Break Free From Plastic’, to launch a movement to achieve a “future free from plastic pollution”, “zero waste systems” and striving for “a world in which our lifestyles fit within the limitations of the environment”.

The plastics industry – which accounts for 1.45 million employees and a turnover of €350 billion – has taken some criticisms on board, calling for more recycling, urging a ban on the disposal of plastics in landfill, and supporting research to tackle marine litter. PlasticsEurope, the European association of plastics manufacturers, argues that if treated properly, plastics can also help to save resources and energy. It says that when the preferred option of recycling is not possible for plastic waste, energy recovery is a complementary alternative: using them as fuel for industrial processes, replacing fossil fuel. It also says plastic materials are extremely resource efficient not only in their production phase but also during their use phase: for example, when used for insulation, plastic materials save more than 140 times the energy needed for their production.

Modern life is unthinkable without plastics. Unfortunately, what makes it so beneficial – it is durable, versatile, lightweight and cheap – also makes it problematic when it comes to its end-of-life phase. And while plastic is not the world’s most toxic waste, it is the most visible: there is nothing like plastic trash to suggest conspicuous consumption and human squander.

The plastics line in ‘The Graduate’ was seen at the time as a cutting jest, contrasting a corporate, establishment career with the counter-cultural instincts of Dustin Hoffman’s character. But if Europe and business can now address the concerns, the plastics sector could emerge from the jokes as a beacon for a more environmental-friendly industry.

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Words Leo Cendrowicz, Roland Moore & Lawrie McLaren

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