Why and how plastics have become a focus of the world’s regulators, and the implications of this for business.


I am sure you have stumbled across many news items concerning plastics over the past few months, and perhaps you are wondering why this has suddenly become a concern...

Over the past 50 years, global production and consumption of plastics have increased more than 20 times over[1]. You also may have heard or read somewhere that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s ocean, if these numbers continue to rise. Unfortunately, it is not a metaphor – but rather based on serious scientific study.

But why this excessive production and consumption of plastic goods?

Plastics have indeed attractable qualities: they are versatile, malleable, lightweight, durable, resistant and cheap. Also, in the interests of convenience and practicality many single-use[2] and disposable items (mainly made of plastics, such as bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging) have been introduced and now dominate our daily lives.

If you start looking around you, you will notice that plastics are everywhere: from the shelves of stores and supermarkets to your clothes and household appliances. They are there, indestructible, in places where you have never imagined. For instance, according to recent studies[3], inside our own bodies (through tiny pieces of plastics called microplastics[4]).

In addition, due to the impact and increased awareness of the effects of plastics on the world’s oceans, a numerous countries have declared war to microbeads.

And here starts the “scary” (or not so good) story about plastics. Its qualities (durable and resistant) are also what makes it so harmful to our lives and planet. It is a double-edged sword. Plastic is a material made to last forever, and its durability makes it very slow and hard to degrade. Plastics can stay in our environment for thousands of years without decomposing.  Instead, they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces (which in turn makes it easier for the pollution they cause, to spread).

In addition, the recycling systems in place have not kept pace with the excessive consumption of this material. Currently, only an insignificant amount of the plastic on the market is recycled (around nine percent).  Therefore, most plastic goods and materials ultimately become waste and are being dumped in landfills, oceans or burned. Single-use plastics are a major source of pollution, especially marine litter. Around 12 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year, reaching an untold level of pollution.

Our planet cannot absorb all this massive production of these “indestructible” and toxic materials. It is not sustainable, and it is harming living beings and polluting our environment.

To further back this up, of the 25.8 million tons of plastic waste generated in Europe in 2015, only 30 percent was collected for recycling. 31 percent was landfilled, and 39 percent incinerated. Recycled plastic corresponds to around six percent of all plastic demand within the EU. More than half of all separately collected plastic waste was exported, with 85 percent of the exported plastic waste shipped to China. However, this situation has changed following China’s decision to ban the import of certain types of plastic waste from 2018.

Back in the 1980s, China became the world’s largest importer of waste, including plastics, which was used to supply the Chinese’s enormous recycling and manufacturing sector. However, the lack of monitoring and control of these sectors caused major environmental and health issues in the country. This led the Chinese Government to impose strict limitations on imports of 24 types of “foreign waste,” including some types of plastics.

Therefore, the Chinese waste importing ban added to the alarming plastic pollution situation described above,  served as a “wake-up call” to  governments from all over the world, which have started trying to come up with solutions to tackle waste and single-use plastic pollution.

How is the plastic pollution being dealt with around the world?

Pushed mostly by the Chinese ban on waste, the European Union has started pulling some strings in order to attack the plastic issue. On January 16, 2018, the European Commission released the European Plastics Strategy of which the main objectives are as follows:

  • ensure all plastic packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030,
  • reduce the consumption of single-use plastics,
  • restrict the intentional use of microplastics in products, and
  • restrict the use of oxo-plastics in the EU.

The Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, declared that the Chinese decision is indeed a big challenge, but it has to be turned into an opportunity[5]. Also, the EU Commission highlighted the importance of exploring the EU’s potential for dealing with its own waste.

The European Plastics Strategy aims at making recycling profitable for business. It foresees an additional support of €100 million to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in order to build a smart and sustainable plastics industry, with well-designed products that comply with the needs of reuse, repair, and recycling, bring growth and jobs to Europe, and help cut EU's greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels.

The “European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy” is also part of the plastic strategy package. It aims to achieve, among other things, a smart, innovative, and sustainable plastic industry, where design and production respect reuse, repair and recycling needs, to ensure that, by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market must be reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner.

Also, the strategy establishes a set of measures that national authorities and industry should adopt to ensure for the strategy implementation. These include, among others:

  1. improve design and support innovation to make plastics and plastic products easier to recycle;
  2. boost demand for recycled plastics and favor reusable plastic and recycled plastics in public procurement;
  3. use taxation and other economic instruments to reward the uptake of recycled plastics and favor plastic reuse and recycling over landfill and incineration; consider establishing fines for littering;
  4. expand and modernize the EU’s sorting and recycling capacity; and
  5. participate in the development of a global protocol for plastics.

Other regions across Europe have also adopted measures aimed at tackling plastic pollution.

In January of this year, Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK), launched the “25-year environmental plan” which aims to eliminate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. One aspect of the plan is to place additional responsibility on producers of plastic-containing products. The plan also suggests the introduction of an extension of the 5p carrier bag charge to all English retailers, and the creation of “plastic-free” supermarket aisles.

In addition, due to the impact and increased awareness of the effects of plastics on the world’s oceans, a numerous countries have declared war to microbeads[6], including Canada, Belgium, UK, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Sweden.

  • In Belgium, companies will have to replace microplastics and microbeads in their products that can be washed out or washed away and that can be found in dental care products by December 31, 2019.
  • In the UK, France and Canada, the ban on the production of cosmetic products containing microbeads is already in force since January 2018. The UK has also banned the sale of such products, which will come into effect in July 2018.
  • In Italy, the production of cosmetics containing microbeads will be banned as of January 1, 2020.
  • In Sweden, the prohibition of making available on the market cosmetic products containing microplastics will enter into force on July 1, 2018.
  • In New Zealand, a ban on the use of microbeads in all personal care products manufactured or sold in the country will start from June 7, 2018.

In Italy and France, a ban will also apply, as of January 1, 2019 and as of January 1, 2020, respectively, on cotton swabs with plastic sticks.

In Portugal, a draft law pending in the National Assembly has been proposed that would prohibit the use of microplastics in the manufacture of detergents and cosmetics, and on the importing or placing on the market of disposable plastic food utensils (such as dishes, cups, cutlery, straw and like products). The ban on microplastics in detergents and cosmetics would apply one year after the draft law enters into force, and the ban on the disposable plastic food utensils would apply three years after the draft law enters into force. 

In the Netherlands, a recent article published by the Dutch Government foresees a law under which producers of plastic packaging might have to pay more for the clearing of packaging waste if they do not produce packaging that can be easily recycled. According to the article, the Government’s goal is to achieve 70 to 90 percent less plastic bottles in litter and 90 percent of reuse of little plastic bottles, and in case the targets would not be met by the autumn of 2020, a deposit of 10 to 15 cents for 1 liter plastic bottles will be introduced from January 1, 2021 onwards.

In Poland and Argentina, there are some proposals being discussed for the implementation of a deposit-and-return scheme, for companies producing packaging made from plastic.

In the state of Maharashtra, in India, plastic water bottles have very recently been banned (since March 18 2018) on a number of Government premises. The same restriction is expected to soon be extended to private offices, as Maharashtra has a stated aim to become plastic free.

In the State of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, following from an amendment to the Environmental Law of the State of Nuevo Leon that came into force on January 27 2018, retail establishments will no longer be able to provide (sell, give or use) plastic bags which are made with less than 30 percent recycled materials. Also, the regulation established that plastic bags made from low-density polyethylene, linear polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, plastic polymers and any other derivative can no longer be used, issued or sold by supermarkets, convenience stores, markets or any other retail shops.

In Africa, Kenya banned the use, import and manufacture of plastic bags in 2017, followed in the footsteps of several African countries such as Guinea Bissau and the Gambia. Non-compliant companies can be liable to a fine of up to USD $40,000 for violating the ban on plastic bags.

How businesses can deal with the waste/plastic issue

On the basis of all the aforementioned measures and initiatives it is clear that waste (mostly, single-use plastics) are being (or becoming) heavily regulated. There is no way back, companies must face this challenge wisely, through a long term strategy.

The old strategies, such as incineration and landfills, are out of question. Incineration makes the pollution worse through the release of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Also, there are many negative issues associated with landfill such as toxins, leachate and greenhouse gases. On the other hand, these methods are not cost-efficient, as they don’t solve the issue, but rather make it worse.

Producers will have to increasingly take responsibility for the waste generated by the products they put in the market.

Therefore, it is logical that instead of spending a great deal of money on solutions to eliminate all waste, businesses must focus on developing sustainable strategies, such as investing in technologies and eco-design products that can be reused, repaired, refurnished, remanufactured, or lastly, recycled, and not simply disposed of (keeping them in the production process as a valuable material).

Producers will have to increasingly take responsibility for the waste generated by the products they put in the market.

For instance, refurnishing or remanufacturing a product, instead of having it disposed of, or even recycled, saves a lot of resources and energy. That’s also why recycling is known as the last resort option when it comes to waste management, as the recycling process requires more energy and investment than refurnishing or remanufacturing a product. Therefore, the longer the product is kept at its highest economic value[7] within the company’s manufacturing chain, the greater the profitability of the business, as it saves costs and energy.

For that reason, instead of manufacturing products to be disposed of, companies should bear in mind the end-of-life of their products when designing them. In other words, companies should shift their business model from a linear economy to a circular economy. By doing that, companies can improve their ecological footprint (by minimizing environmental impacts), and make their business more profitable. It benefits both companies and the environment.

In fact, through a proper circular economy business model, and a well-planned strategy, companies can actually reduce costs, for instance, from a resource consumption and energy efficiency aspect, as the “waste” will be used as a resource in the production process (rather than being discarded), and the company will have way less costs than by making a brand new product. It is effective way to obtain value from products and to reduce operational costs; but for benefiting from this scheme, and guaranteeing profitability in the long run, companies must take into consideration the costs of their operation in their planning strategy.

Circumstances have changed, and therefore companies must also. Companies are also incentivized to look for alternatives to single-use plastic. However, companies must ensure their production material meets the standards established by the jurisdictions they operate in, guaranteeing that they are compatible with the environmental and circular economy standards.

Finally, industry is strongly recommended to follow this trend as soon as possible. It is the time to think out of the box, and make the challenge an opportunity. Companies must look for ways to cut back on the amount of waste, including single-use plastics, they place on the market, and develop environmental-friendly alternatives to it.


References:

The Economist, The known unknowns of plastic pollution – Available at https://www.economist.com/news/international/21737498-so-far-it-seems-less-bad-other-kinds-pollution-about-which-less-fuss-made

Independent, Theresa May’s 25-year environment plan is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and ‘a long way off’ say green experts, Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/theresa-may-environment-government-flaws-science-plastic-pollution-michael-gove-speech-a8153536.html  

Ecomundo, Banning microbeads in cosmetics in France by 2018, Available at https://www.ecomundo.eu/en/blog/ban-microbeads-cosmetics-france-2018

DW, Facing public pressure, companies are ditching plastic, Available at http://www.dw.com/en/facing-public-pressure-companies-are-ditching-plastic/

Independent, Montreal to ban all plastic bags from city, Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/montreal-plastic-bag-ban-canada-city-law-a8140576.html

Independent, Samsø: Entire Danish island to ban plastic bags in favour of fabric versions, Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/samso-denmark-island-plastic-bag-ban-danish-environment-recylcing-a8105046.html

The Guardian, Plastic microbeads ban enters force in UK, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/09/plastic-microbeads-ban-enters-force-in-uk

Zero Waste Europe, 9 reasons why we better move away from waste-to-energy, and embrace zero waste instead, Available at https://zerowasteeurope.eu/2018/02/9-reasons-why-we-better-move-away-from-waste-to-energy-and-embrace-zero-waste-instead/

MIWA, A Tiny Invasion, Available at http://www.miwa.eu/blog/a-tiny-invasion?lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_profile_view_base_recent_activity_details_shares%3BTgEYTWCRR6i15rqLf%2BmzNA%3D%3D

EcoWatch, 20 Facts About Our Plastic-Packed Planet and 9 Ways to Help, Available at https://www.ecowatch.com/plastic-facts-solutions-2509675059.html

BBC, Seven charts that explain the plastic pollution problem, Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-42264788

BBC, Six simple ways to cut back on plastic, Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/42309891/six-simple-ways-to-cut-back-on-plastic

SCOOP Independent News, Microbeads banned, Available at http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1712/S00024/microbeads-banned.htm

EURACTIV, Plastics: The invisible oil spill, Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/circular-economy/opinion/plastics-the-i...

Plastic Pollution Coalition, Why is plastic harmful, Available at https://plasticpollutioncoalition.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/222813127-Why-is-plastic-harmful-

National Geographic, A Whopping 91 percent of Plastic Isn't Recycled, Available at  https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/

South China Morning Post, 24 reasons why China’s ban on foreign trash is a wake-up call for global waste exporters, Available at http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2126098/24-reasons-why-chinas-ban-foreign-trash-wake-call-global

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards a Circular Economy, Available at https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation-Towards-the-Circular-Economy-vol.1.pdf

 

[1] PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2013 (2013); PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2015 (2015).

[2] Single-use plastics are disposable items, which are used only once and thrown away.

[3] The Guardian, Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists. Damian Carrington, Environment editor. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/12/microplastic-pollution-in-oceans-is-far-greater-than-thought-say-scientists?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Tweet

BBC News, Plastic particles found in bottled water. David Shukman, Science editor. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43388870

[4] Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long, that consists entirely or partly of synthetic polymers that is not dissolvable in water and not biodegradable in the aquatic environment. They can come from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, industrial processes and from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces.

[5] The journal - The EU is going to ban single-use coffee cups by 2030, Hayley Halpin. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/eu-coffee-cups-ban-3801592-Jan2018/

[6] Microbeads are pieces of plastic of around one millimeter dimension. They are used in personal care products, such as exfoliating, shower gels and toothpastes.

[7] A product at its highest economic value is the one that a company can benefit the most in its production chain with the lowest cost.