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The Road to the New Plastics Economy: Complexity Ahead

When First Vice-president Timmermans announced May proposals to ban a number of single-use plastics in the European market, this represented a political U-turn to his initial opposition to proposals on single-use plastic bags in 2014. And though the EU appears to have woken up to the issue of plastics to a greater degree than anticipated, these proposals represent small steps in a long road to changing our relationship with the material, and there remain many uncertainties about what shape the ‘new plastics economy’ will take. Whilst there is now widespread agreement of the severity of the plastics issue, determining the way forward is complicated.

Plastics: what we do and don’t know

A key factor in determining action on plastics has been a growing understanding of the issue. Research on marine litter has helped to build evidence on where plastics come from in the economy and where they go in the environment. Analysis of plastic data has shown that across the globe, of the 6 300 million tonnes of plastic waste generated between 1950 and 2015, 79 per cent of this was either landfilled or leaked into the environment. In the EU, the market for plastics is saturated, per capita plastic consumption is amongst the highest globally at around 100kg per person per year, and little more than 30 per cent of this is collected for recycling.

Most pollution results from land-based activities, although activities at sea, including fishing and shipping, also contribute significantly. Single-use plastics – those designed to be used once with short product lifetimes – are particularly problematic, as they are rarely recycled and often littered. Microplastics (particles smaller than 5mm) pose a specific risk because of the ease with which they enter the environment and can be ingested by wildlife, as well as the near impossibility of cleaning them up. Impacts of plastics on biodiversity are also well documented. More than 800 species have been negatively affected by marine debris, including more than 40 per cent of cetacean species, including whales.

However, there remains a great deal we do not understand. There are uncertainties in information on global flows of plastic waste and how waste is managed, including in Europe.  At the recent OECD Global Forum on Plastics, one expert pointed out that Member State data for recycling often measured what was collected “for recycling”, not what was recycled and that the actual transformation of waste into new products was likely 50 per cent lower than the data suggested. Research looking at UK data suggested that recycling rates were inflated by up to one third. Developing robust methods for monitoring and reporting on material flows will be essential for implementing the EU’s plastics strategy, adopted in January 2018, and new stricter calculation methods in the revised waste directive should help to improve the quality of recycling data.

Many of the impacts related to plastics are also poorly understood. Recent analysis from the FAO shows that of the species where microplastics are present, 55 per cent are commercially relevant to the sea-food sector. Furthermore, other issues such as risks from nano-plastics and plastics in soils remain uninvestigated.

Europe’s role in a global phenomenon

A common critique of recent EU actions is to point to evidence showing that third countries where waste management infrastructure is less developed contribute more to plastic pollution than the EU does. One study shows that 10 rivers, all in Asia and Africa, contribute between 88 and 95 per cent of marine litter.

Firstly, Europe does contribute to marine litter, at an estimated rate of 150 000 to 500 000 tonnes of plastic annually. The Mediterranean is one of the most badly affected seas on the planet, with up to 700 tonnes entering its waters each day. Likewise, Europe is a global leader in the production of plastics – producing 20 per cent of 280 million tonnes global supply of plastic in 2016. Major European brands trade goods, including major culprits of litter such as sachets and drinks bottles, in foreign markets where waste management is undeveloped or non-existent.

questions about convenience, lifestyles, and how we consume food are core to the plastics debate, but rarely discussed

As well as finished products, Europe exports plastic waste across the globe. In recent years, many EU Member States have exported up to half of the plastics collected for recycling outside of Europe – mostly to China – amounting to 37 per cent of global exports of plastic waste in 2016 and with an estimated value of 2.68 billion US dollars. China’s restrictions on imports of scrap plastic as of January 2018 are estimated to displace 111 million tonnes of plastic by 2030, raising questions about where this waste will go.

As well as preventing leakage in the EU, Europe can provide leadership on managing plastics by recognising its position in global supply chains, and helping support the development of infrastructure in countries where economic actors benefit from access to markets for their goods. Some European governments, including the UK’s recent commitments in the Commonwealth, have started to pledge development investments. Likewise, some private-sector initiatives, such as recently formed group Circulate Capital, aim to leverage funds in emerging markets. However, investments remain small compared to the scale of the impacts and the infrastructure investment gap which exists in many developing countries.

Exonerating Europe because the challenges are greater elsewhere ignores the realities of global plastics supply chains and the opportunities that exist in supporting global leadership on this issue.

Creating a market for waste

The economics of plastics is a key driver of pollution but is also helping to define European policies. On one hand, the low cost of virgin plastics, coupled to crude oil prices, permits pervasive and wasteful applications of the material, as well as creating a barrier to the uptake of recycled materials which are either more expensive or of inferior quality. On the other hand, plastic as a material as well as the impacts of its waste represent a significant economic burden that is poorly reflected in the price of plastic products. In the case of packaging, it is estimated that most items are only used once and 95 per cent of their value is lost after the first use, representing a global economic loss of 100 billion  euros annually.

Plastic waste also places an economic burden on a range of sectors, such as tourism and fishing, as well as municipalities which are faced with clean-up costs. A UNEP assessment, estimated that the annual global natural capital costs associated with plastic waste amounted to around 65 billion euros.

Regarding the recent proposals, the economic benefits of action in contrast to inaction are demonstrated in the Impact Assessment for the Commission’s suggested measures on single-use plastics, which estimates consumer benefits of 6.5 billion euros. As well as bans on specific products, the proposals support the use of extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit refund system (DRS) schemes for plastics. Market-based instruments are an effective policy instrument to correct the externalities of plastics and are being increasingly applied to a range of products. The successful case of the Irish plastic bag levy has now been widely cited and replicated.

Plastic packaging for food now represents around 20 per cent of the total demand of plastics.

EPR schemes are promoted in the plastics strategy. These schemes, already in place in 26 Member States, vary significantly in their design and success but generally charge producers for placing plastic packaging on the market. Eco-modulation of fees represents one approach to strengthen EPR, which involves varying contributions from producers according to the ease with which products can be recycled – for example, charging producers more for using problematic dyes which disrupt recycling systems such as carbon black, as is practiced by CITEO in France.

EPR schemes have lots of potential and good systems can be very effective at recovering the costs of waste management, but they are not without risks. EPR is dependent on revenues from producers which are received when new products are put on the market. In this sense, EPR is a weak tool for supporting waste prevention and re-use which would reduce the material intensity of the economy overall. In Belgium, heated political debates have seen DRS and EPR schemes in direct competition for exactly this reason.

The Commission’s inclusion of a proposal for a plastics tax in the 2021-2027 budget, which would be applied to non-recycled plastic packaging waste at a rate of 80 cents per kilo, has also attracted criticism for favoring recycling over reduction. In addition, the power to use public procurement criteria to help generate a market for less wasteful products and services remains underutilised in Europe.

Chemical barriers to recycling

There are also important technical obstacles to recycling plastics. Unlike glass or steel, plastics cannot be repeatedly mechanically recycled (using heat) because the long chains of polymers gradually break up. This means that recycling requires a regular input of virgin material or virgin plastic products are ‘down-cycled’ into lower value products, such as fibers for textiles. Chemicals added to plastics further complicate the issue as they either disrupt recycling processes, reduce the quality of recycled plastics, or (if toxic) can pose health and environmental risks. 

In general, recyclers do not have easy access to information about the chemical composition of the products they collect for recycling, and so may not be able to determine the composition of the recyclates they place back on the market. This implies that our economy will remain firmly reliant on the input of virgin materials without significant changes in how waste is managed. These risks have been well explained by the Commission’s Communication on options to address the interface between chemical, product and waste legislation, but it remains unclear how this document will lead to policies.

In the future chemical recycling could present a solution to developing high-quality products from recyclates. However, this technology is still in its infancy and in practice will likely rely on a high input of energy and materials (including chemical catalysts) – so it is not clear how viable it will be in economic or sustainability terms. 

Substitutions, innovation, and risks

Much of the discourse around plastics has focused on substituting materials and replacing plastic products with alternatives. Bioplastics – both bio-based and compostable – have been given a lot of attention. These products appear appealing because they facilitate business as usual for retailers and consumers, but in practice carry many of the same risks as conventional plastics in terms of marine pollution. They are also often incorrectly sorted in waste management systems, and create the wrong incentives for consumers confused by products labelled as biodegradable. Although it has been argued that the production of bio-based plastics, even if scaled up, will not compete with food, this fails to take into account the limited viable agricultural area available for growing crops, especially in light of growing pressures on soils, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and so on.

Substituting plastics for traditional materials (such as metals, glass, and paper) is also not without risks. Plastics industry-led research has illustrated well some of the risks in substituting plastics for other materials in consumer goods – such as alternative packaging materials increasing the transport emissions for goods (in the case of metal and glass), or placing pressure on forestry supply (in the case of paper). However, very often contradictory evidence is presented by industry groups promoting the relative benefits of their material for the environment compared to the competition. Expert on plastics and recycling Roland Geyer has warned of a possible rebound effect from circular economy policies, whereby circular products (here recycled plastics or substitute materials) fail to displace virgin (or single-use) products in the economy but rather are produced in addition to them, offsetting the environmental benefits sought by these measures.

So far, very little has been said about the potential benefits of preventing waste and reducing consumption overall. For example, the widely publicised ‘plastic free aisle’ campaign seems to have missed the point by focusing on replacing some plastics with compostable plastics, rather than seeking opportunities for re-use and removing packaging altogether by selling products loose.

Relinquishing convenience

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to overcome or replace the convenience which plastics have afforded us. An article in the August 1955 LIFE magazine, titled “Throwaway Living – disposable items cut down household chores”, celebrates a family surrounded by single-use products. Half a century later, an on-the-go throwaway culture is not only culturally acceptable but also the norm.

Nevertheless, the successes with plastic bag levies show that the right policies can change public behaviour quickly and cost effectively. Likewise, the narrative on circular economy is revealing how new business models can generate value from re-use and waste prevention. A good example is the London-based cup club, which provides coffee cups as a service.

Some signs suggest culture is also starting to change. Weaning ourselves off plastics and on to zero-waste lifestyles has joined other environmental acts, such as cycling to work, reducing meat consumption, and avoiding flights – but these all remain peripheral.

Marine litter represents a powerful metaphor for systemic waste in the modern economy.

In the case of food, lightweight and versatile plastics have been a defining material in facilitating global supply chains. Today, out-of-season produce crosses continents and passes between multiple intermediaries, before being prepared for the consumer and delivered to their front doors ready to eat. Would this be feasible without plastics? Plastic packaging for food now represents around 20 per cent of the total demand of plastics. Increasingly complicated packaging designs have also helped to extend the shelf life of products on supermarket shelves and reduce transport emissions through light weighting, but they have not reduced food waste overall, which has steadily grown alongside packaging waste.

Package-free retailers, zero-waste stores, and community-supported agriculture box schemes are multiplying across Europe and demonstrate how reusable packaging or removing packaging altogether is feasible. However, the extent to which they can be scaled  up is not clear. European food retail is highly concentrated in supermarkets: in each Member State, four to five supermarket groups account for between 50 and 80 per cent of the grocery market. In this sense, questions about convenience, lifestyles, and how we consume food are core to the plastics debate, but rarely discussed.

The road to the new plastics economy 

In 1972, American economist Anthony Downs suggested that public interest in environmental issues follow an “Issue Attention Cycle” with five stages of first ascending and later declining attention. Referring to this model, plastics are firmly in the third stage, “discovery/enthusiasm”, which represents the peak of public attention. This is reflected in the Commission’s excitement at the number of hits the plastics strategy webpage has received.  

The next stage of the cycle, “realization of the cost”, begins the decline of public interest, and reduces the political potential for developing policies. Downs recommends applying product pricing to increase the acceptability of financing pollution control. To an extent, this is what has been done with the proposed instruments on specific products, as well as the proposal for a tax on non-recycled virgin plastics. Furthermore, the circular-economy discourse has allowed addressing plastics to be framed as an opportunity as much as a burden. Many ‘trash-to-treasure’ businesses turning marine litter into new products (such as Adidas and Ocean Parley’s football shirts) are good examples of this – but beyond raising awareness and providing some conscious-free retail therapy, their impact will be negligible. 

The road to the new plastics economy can be an opportunity, but this does not mean it will necessarily be profitable for everyone. Marine litter represents a powerful metaphor for systemic waste in the modern economy. Thus, delving into the technicalities of changing our relationship with plastics reveals the need to reconsider our consumption-orientated growth model as much as placing the blame on the material itself.

The Road to the New Plastics Economy: Complexity Ahead

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