We need a fundamental revaluing of plastic in a world in which there is no silver bullet. Plastic has run unchecked and unregulated for 150 years.
Many good things are happening, but with stringent regulation - through the entire product life cycle from concept through production, distribution and disposal – real change will happen. Inventive. Invaluable. Invasive. Plastic has shaped our daily lives like no other material: from packaging to footwear, household goods to furniture, and cars to architecture. A symbol of carefree consumerism and revolutionary innovation, plastic has spurred the imagination of designers for decades.
Today, the dramatic consequences of the plastic boom have become apparent, and plastic has lost its utopian appeal. Never has it been more critical to understand the 150-year history of this contested material, which is essential yet superfluous, lifesaving yet life-threatening, and seductive yet dangerous.
That COP27 again neglected to include plastic as a critical item is disappointing. It is scandalous. Details create the big picture We must focus on the mass, not just carbon. We must start working with what we have already taken from the ground. Turn waste into resources. Keep them in endless loops without the loss of quality. This is how we decouple growth from extraction. Most companies think of checking compliance with their labels. Many also remember to confirm compliance with the product composition before they get to the labelling stage. But ensuring compliance with packaging legislation is an area that is frequently forgotten, yet it is an essential aspect of overall product compliance. There are many nuanced arguments, but businesses can lead the charge on innovation, but governments must raise the bar on the minimum standards in any market.
Voluntary agreements will always struggle without the regulatory backup of robust Extended Producer Responsibility systems or other genuine incentives to drive market change. Unfortunately, these reforms are unfolding at a glacially slow pace. It is high time we expedite the rollout of EPR. Specifically, in the UK, we hope to learn what EPR will look like soon – many businesses are already attempting to set up more in-depth measurement systems. So, it will be helpful to know what the variables of control are for brands - this will be the biggest driver of change if done correctly. The brands that can thrive in this decade of possibility will balance exceptional experience and unparalleled integrity to drive sustainable revenue growth and profit. They will do things right and focus more on doing the right things.
We have a significant global issue with packaging waste and pollution. In the case of plastic packaging, for example just 14% is collected for recycling globally. At the same time, staggeringly, a third ends up in the environment, and more than half is landfilled or incinerated. Since the late 1980s, the concept of “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) has become an established principle of environmental policy in many countries. It aims to make producers responsible for the environmental impacts of their products throughout the product chain, from design to the post-consumer phase. While generally successful, the performance of EPR can be further improved, including by increasing cost-effectiveness and their impact on product design.
EPR systems will have to continue to evolve if they are to become more effective waste management policy tools and to support the transition to more resource-efficient economies. To stop packaging pollution, we need a circular economy where we eliminate what we don't need, innovate towards new packaging, products and business models, and circulate all the packaging we use, keeping it in the economy and out of the environment. But packaging collection, sorting, and recycling typically cost more than the money it makes. EPR is the only proven and feasible way to provide dedicated, ongoing, and sufficient funding. Honesty is the best policy According to a new report from Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and Eunomia Research & Consulting, the current strategies in the materials production sectors are insufficient to meet climate targets and should be rethought. The authors write that sector is responsible for some 25% of global emissions, with the most significant contributors being the aluminium, concrete, steel and plastics industries. The production of these four materials alone is currently responsible for 78% of GHG emissions from the material production sector.
Current production and consumption trajectories indicate global material use is predicted to double from 2015 to 2060. Therefore, the report finds that mitigating the GHG emissions from these sectors is likely to present a significant challenge.
Ramping up recycling will not do it, and a radical redesign of policies and product distribution is needed. Most countries are still struggling with the basic elements of the waste management agenda. Even in Europe, some member states are still working with very high rates of landfill and very low recycling rates. The problem is that there are no ambitious enough policies to cost waste – very often, waste does not cost us anything. When putting waste into landfills, all the incentives are geared towards that outcome. That creates incredible inertia in the system. Companies are essentially paid to put money into landfill rather than investing in recycling and sorting. Be a game changer Thankfully, there is a new breath of momentum at several levels.
There is a much higher awareness of the problem. An increasing number of countries are packaging the waste agenda within a broader approach to a circular economy. You need public policy, and those policies can be split into three big buckets—regulatory policies, fiscal policies and behavioural policies, which can genuinely change consumer preferences. If effective with those, you create competitive constraints for producers, costs go up, and regulations must be factored in. A circular economy is one area where we lack methodology, measurement, and data. So, defining circularity, our direction of travel and how we measure it is a first-order issue before we can even put policies in place.
We need scale, creativity, competitivity, innovation, visibility, and predictability for businesses. We are on the brink of tipping the scale toward waste reduction with Extended Producer Responsibility, but we need public policy. Without EPR, packaging collection and recycling are unlikely to be meaningfully scaled, and tens of millions of tons of packaging will end up in the environment yearly. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. By setting comprehensive, realistic goals, we can all have a clearer path to a system solutions framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution.
Andrew McCaffery is the Global EPR Director at Ecoveritas.