The world clearly needs a new plastics value equation – one where the utility of plastics is maintained, CO2 emissions are greatly reduced and plastic pollution is prevented. There can be no doubt that plastics-producing and plastics-using corporations are largely responsible for significantly reducing the environmental impact of these materials. However, companies’ central role in this pursuit cannot be performed in isolation.
Outlining the circular plastics system
There is growing recognition that the solution is a circular economy. The principal goals are to decouple plastic production from its harmful reliance on fossil feedstock and to keep high-quality plastics in circulation.
Material circularity holds the greatest potential for carbon emissions abatement. As outlined in the recently launched Plastics Transition Roadmap, a 28% reduction in emissions generated by the European plastics industry is achievable by 2030, setting us on the path to net-zero by 2050*. All up- and down-stream levers need to be engaged including new reuse business models, design of lighter materials, design for recycling, as well as mechanical and chemical recycling. Further emission reductions can be realized by increased use of renewable sources of power, green hydrogen, carbon capture and alternative feedstocks such as biowaste in the production of plastics materials.
While all of these avenues must be pursued intensively, one of the biggest opportunities to reduce emissions comes from increasing recycling levels. Intelligent systems that efficiently sort and then recycle multiple waste streams, including those that are difficult to reprocess, are emerging. This technology is progressing quickly, aided by the adoption of AI, which is set to improve waste sorting and processing efficiency. Moreover, concepts to “decentralise” recycling by setting up small-scale hubs near waste-generating sites are gaining traction.
However, note that there is no “silver bullet” to deliver the new plastics value equation. A range of complementary solutions that operate fluidly at scale is required. Establishing such physical and systemic infrastructure relies on contributions by a variety of stakeholders.
The “3 Cs” – corporations and citizen-consumers
Plastics can only become circular if all value chain stakeholders – including governments, plastics manufacturers, financial institutions, recyclers and scientific institutions – shoulder their share of the responsibility.
The solution also relies on individual choice. We must recognise a fundamental tension between our identities as consumers and as citizens. As consumers, we still overwhelmingly focus on convenience. As citizens, we desire a clean environment. Although we pride ourselves on adhering to a “rules-based” system in the Western world, the reality is that, despite the long-term existence of rules on waste collection, we still fall well short of desired recycling rates.
There is still much to be done to improve circularity, from enhancing product design and use, developing waste management infrastructure, and establishing incentives to grow markets for recycled material. To accomplish these objectives, the role of policymakers – local, regional, national and international – is crucial. A promising sign is the fact that, in the current United Nations negotiation fora, including the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, many governments have recognized circularity as a vital part of the solution to this global challenge.
In the context of these negotiations, the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, convened by the World Wildlife Fund and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, has called for a legally binding global framework that leverages the circular economy as the key tool to end plastic pollution. The coalition urges policymakers to draft a treaty that is action oriented, rather than lofty and unspecific. The treaty is a rare opportunity for real change in how we make, use and revalorise end-of-life plastic.
Extended Producer Responsibility
When it comes to the matter of reducing plastic waste on land and in bodies of water, one of the most promising solutions is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This requires industry to fund the collection and safe treatment of packaging and other short-lived products. Another important step to stimulate action is to set up monitoring and reporting systems to improve transparency around actual progress.
EPR efforts should be expanded around the globe and deepened in regions where they already exist. In parallel, to facilitate keeping plastics in circulation in an economical and carbon-efficient manner, private and public sector financing of the necessary infrastructure needs to be intensified.
Next five years a critical window for action
Implementing plastics circularity represents an enormous agenda for plastics producers and users. The next five years are a critical window for action but we can only deliver this new plastics value equation through society-wide collaboration. We must all be prepared to accept our respective responsibilities as well as the capabilities of our counterparts.
*Published by Plastics Europe, The Plastic Transition is a roadmap to accelerate the transition to make plastics circular, drive life cycle emissions to net zero, and foster the sustainable use of plastics.