Leading figures from environmental groups discussed waste issues with the plastics industry at PlasticsEurope's high-profile event, writes Amanda McCormack in this feature for Plastics News Europe.
Held in The Egg, Brussels, PlasticsEurope's Polytalk 2016 conference, called Zero Plastics to the Oceans, welcomed over 250 delegates in March from across industries, including plastic manufacturers, non-governmental organisations, science, politics and academia, to discuss the problem of plastic waste in the oceans.
Opening the event was Plastics- Europe president and Covestro CEO Patrick Thomas who highlighted the need for a unified response to the problem of marine litter. “Marine litter is a global challenge that needs a global solution,” he said. “We want to find the right answers to marine litter because our aim is for zero plastics entering the oceans.”
He said: “Eight million tonnes of plastic is pumped into the oceans each year... This is a global issue, most plastic waste is not coming from European sources and we recognise there won't be a one-size-fits-all solution.
“About 80% of plastic waste in the oceans is coming from land-based sources and therefore waste management processes, which are vital, vary dramatically from region to region and country to country… It is vital that we work together across diverse industries and countries to identify and implement the best solutions to protect our environment from litter and waste.”
Thomas compared the marine plastic litter problem to that of a domestic flood, saying “the tap needs turning off” at the source. Stopping plastic waste escaping at the very beginning of the chain was something he emphasised as being vital to halting the problem.
Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, talked about how the organisation had been looking at material scarcity and sustainability over the last five years, and how the circular economy was critical to helping stop the flow of plastic waste into the oceans.
Morlet said: “We don't want technical plastics ending up in the oceans where they can't be metabolised or biodegraded and they have consequential negative results.”
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation produced reports looking at the circular economy and the opportunity to capture the value of materials, not only at end of use but also when their use fades, he said. The reports concentrated on looking at how people think about keeping components and materials at the highest value for as long as possible.
Morlet said: “[The] first two reports, which looked at the durable goods sector in Europe and the fast moving consumer goods sector globally, showed that $1trn [€877bn] material substitution value could be achieved by exercising circular economy levers.”
The third report from the foundation was trying to understand how the concept of a circular economy would play out across global supply chains. It led to the organisation launching Project Mainstream, which engaged with 250 people across 45 companies across the plastic packaging value chain to get a perspective of global plastic material flows. The report found 2% of plastics was fed back into the material flow during production, 14% post-use plastics was collected for recycling, 40% was going to landfill and 40% was being incinerated. At a global level, 32% of plastic packaging enters the environment, predominately the ocean, according to Morlet.
Conceding the problem is difficult to quantify, Morlet nonetheless said: “Today we have total plastic production of 311 million tonnes of plastic and 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging; there is a ratio of 1:5 tonnes of plastic in ocean compared to fish biomass. If leakage and production keeps at today's rate, 2050 will see plastic outweigh fish.”
He emphasised the need for a common set of guidelines globally, a global plastic protocol, as a solution to make post-collection sorting and recycling work. The need for a scheme that goes across the value chain – to allow the economics of a sorting system to work – is key. He also identified the need to thoroughly understand problems like the impact of microplastics.
Marianne Wenning, the European Commission's director for quality of life, water and air, in DG Environment, said: “We want a 30% reduction [of marine plastic waste] by 2020 and by the end of 2016 we aim to understand how to do this.”
She said: “More needs to be done, we must increase efforts – even if we decrease from 32% to 1% we still end up with 1 million tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans.”
During a panel discussion, Wenning echoed Morlet's concern over microplastics: “Product design can help ensure recyclability and prevent microplastics [getting into the environment],” she said.
Ulf Björnholm, who heads the EU liaison office for the United Nations Environment Programme, focused upon the need to communicate across the industry and to have a structured response, as “marine litter does not observe borders”.
Beginning in mid-2017 in the US, microbeads, the tiny plastic beads found in some beauty products, will be banned. The issue of microplastics was one that was very much a point of concern for all speakers at the event, with the subject continuing over into the speed talk events on the second day of the conference.
Attending the speed talk on product design innovation, Plastics News Europe heard Joao Sousu from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Sousu said that the IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme's next project is on the Arctic and microplastics, due to the material being found in ice in the Arctic and the effect on its melting point. There is also concern that marine life in the Arctic region will consume the microplastics once the ice has melted.
Finding innovative ways of dealing with the current marine plastic litter in the oceans was also a hot topic at the Polytalk event. Rob Booguard, president and CEO at Interface, related how his company is producing environmentally responsible modular carpets. The company runs an initiative called Net-Works, which involves materials for the carpets being sourced from used fishing nets which otherwise may have ended up as marine debris. The company used 35 tonnes of nets in its first two years and now, in its third year, that has risen to 80 tonnes. Starting in 27 islands in the Phillipines, the company has now expanded its Net-Works programme to Africa.
Booguard said that Interface's carbon footprint had been reduced by 90%, telling attendees: “You can't create a green product in a brown company.” He also pointed out that “sustainability does pay and that it is not just good for nature but good for business.”
The Polytalk event opened up a lot of discussion, particularly during the panel sessions, with everyone agreeing that no single solution to the problem of marine plastic litter was available, but that systemic solutions were needed. A need to design plastics for post-use, to create smaller protocols so that plastics can be recycled together, global education programmes on plastic waste, scientific evaluation and government co-operation were all listed as important to a cross-industry response.