The scale and impact of plastic pollution has increasingly come to our attention over recent years as various groups highlight the shocking impact of ‘leakage’ into our oceans, which has further highlighted many of the other complex challenges faced by the plastics industry.
The group of materials known collectively as plastics have played a definitive role in delivering much of the socio-economic advantages of modern life, and their production has outpaced that of almost every other material since the 1950s.
Plastics have become the workhorse material of the modern economy through their availability and versatility, but above all, they are virtually unrivalled in terms of performance and affordability.
40% of plastics produced (166 million tons annually) is used in packaging, with 20% in building and construction, 10% in automotive, 5% in electronics and 25% in other sectors.
Of the 40% of plastics produced for packaging:
Prior to 1980, recycling and incineration of plastic was negligible, with the vast majority placed into landfill.
From 1980 for incineration, and 1990 for recycling, rates increased on average by about 0.7% per year. Globally, 18% of plastic is recycled, up from nearly zero in 1980.
These average figures don’t tell us the full story. While recyclability rates can be as high at 70% in the case of PET (e.g. beverage bottles) through mechanical and chemical routes, PVC and PS remain challenging, with rates in the low digits.
An estimated 10% of packaging waste is effectively recycled globally – an unacceptable level considering metals and paper materials are recycled at rates in excess of 50%.
Sources of plastic waste leaking into our oceans are in part as a result of the global trade in waste. All of the top twenty nation state sources of leakage are developing countries.
With some exceptions, many of these countries lack requisite regulatory frameworks, institutional capacity and infrastructure to safely manage waste and the rapidly increasing volumes of plastic waste imported from other countries.
As developed countries struggle to manage rising volumes of domestic waste, exports have risen over the last decade.
In 2018 USA, Japan, Germany, UK and Belgium were the main exporters of plastic waste, with most destined for developing countries, especially in Asia, where the global plastic waste management market was estimated to be worth USD$32.6 billion in 2019.
China’s 2018 ‘National Sword’ policy banned the import of certain plastic waste (e.g. mixed/unsorted, contaminated).
Prior to 2018, China imported over two thirds of the volume of global plastic waste.
This policy change diverted packaging to less regulated countries which negatively impacted leakage, but many of these countries also banned the import of waste – pushing back on developed countries and forcing policy makers to act swiftly to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic waste.
Voluntary efforts by leading companies and brands owners, in coordination with NGO campaigns in most developed countries such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Eliminate Innovate Circulate) are developing frameworks and cohesive initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
These critical building blocks support development of sensible transition from voluntary action to mandatory regulations.
The leakage of plastic waste into the environment represents a huge loss of material value to the global economy. On the commercial side, the failure to recycle or recapture the value of plastic has been estimated to represent an annual loss of between USD$80 and USD$120 billion in value to the plastics industry.
Notwithstanding environmental and health implications, the broader economic costs of plastic pollution are compounded further if we fail to (re)capture this value and address the inherent losses.
China’s ‘National Sword’ policy, whilst forcing developed countries of the world to refocus internally their efforts around collection and recycling, negatively impacted the value of waste.
Combined with low raw material prices (oil), the industry faces a significant challenge to deliver a commercially viable circular model.
It would be sensible to consider long term subsidy for specific post-consumer raw material groups. It is not sufficient to fund collection/recycling infrastructure in different countries while ignoring the value of recycled waste in the short term.
We need to secure long term value for the recycled commodity that supports and increases the capital investment being made in recycling and collection.
The speed of change required to reduce the impact of packaging waste on our planet and the current short to medium term economic outlook on virgin raw material costs (remaining low) will slow transition to the circular objective if left unsupported.
Taxing virgin materials will only increase cost to consumers and does not support circular objectives. Sustainable recycled material pricing is what is required, aligned with sustainable objectives around the inclusion of recycled content in packaging.
We cannot replace plastics with an alternative quickly enough at scale. The high performance and relatively low cost of plastics will take decades to re-engineer, with viable replacements no doubt bringing new challenges to consider from a global production and consumption perspective.
Some transitioning to conventional resources such as paper, metal and glass is possible and likely, but not at enough scale to balance or slow the rate of plastics growth.
What we can do right now, is narrow the portfolio of materials to those most significantly used and recycled today to maximise the circular opportunity and capture the significant lost value.
We have technologies available to deliver sustainable solutions currently with the plastics we have. We have existing and effective mechanical recycling solutions available now.
Effective collection and sorting of a narrowed raw material portfolio (mono materials) inputs will increase overall efficiencies and maximise outputs.
Existing technologies are being supported by new innovations to further improve and diversify the recyclable effectiveness of plastics such as chemical recycling, allowing the reuse of flexible packaging as primary (food contact) packaging like PET, glass and paper.
Current research and innovation will no doubt provide opportunities for improvements that offer orders of magnitude improvements to current industry offerings and the associated post-consumer processes. But, we can make a difference right now by limiting the number of plastic materials available, focusing on materials that best lend themselves to reuse and recycling, and leveraging the technology that we already have available to support this.
In our quest for improvement and in the true spirit of sustainability (meeting people and the planet’s current needs without compromising future needs), it makes sense to utilise the know-how and resources available to us right now, and help to inform some of the more significant step changes that our children will enjoy in terms of how packaging is produced, consumed and reused.