This article is part of our special report Packaging and the environment.
Plastic has become increasingly unpopular with the public. But life without it might look very different.
Last month, as executives from Europe’s plastic manufacturing sector met for a new year reception at the top of The Hotel in Brussels, the winds of change were in the air. As they gazed over the Brussels skyline, the chatter was of an industry in flux. And there was a mix of excitement and trepidation in the air.
Just a week earlier, the European Commission had unveiled its plastics strategy – a plan to phase out the manufacture of single-use plastics and make all plastic reusable or recyclable by 2030.
The new policy comes in response to growing public pressure on policymakers and companies to do something about plastic waste. For some in the plastics industry, it has felt like the world is turning against them.
But speaking at the event, Daniel Calleja Crespo, director-general of the Commission’s environment department, sought to reassure any jittery nerves. The EU is not declaring war on plastic – it is going to work with the industry to make the plastics value chain more circular.
“We all know that plastics is a success story,” he told the crowd. “It’s one of the most successful materials, it’s everywhere in our daily lives, you see it all over the place. It provides a lot of services to consumers. And yet we have to face the task of how can we make plastics more circular.”
He then addressed the other elephant in the room – China’s decision to ban imports of plastic waste for recycling from 1 January this year. Until now, China has been recycling about half of the world’s plastic products.
But Beijing unexpectedly announced in July that it was placing a ban on such imports, giving the world’s recycling market little time to adjust. With the largest export market suddenly unavailable, there are now backups of plastic waste throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Ireland and the UK.
The Commission sees this crisis as an opportunity. “This is the best news for Europe,” Crespo said. “Why? Because now we have no choice but to develop more recycling, to work more on eco-design and to find more sustainable solutions to meet this challenge.”
Environmental campaigners have also been stressing this. Emma Priestland, an environmental campaigner with the group Seas at Risk, says the timing is key because there will only be a short window created by the Chinese decision in which systemic change is not only possibly, but required.
“There’s a very real risk that all of that waste instead of going to China will instead go to another country,” she says. “Now is the real time that we can push this momentum through.”
Beijing’s decision, coupled with a global pushback against plastics, make this an uncertain time for all parts of the plastics value chain.
When the European Commission unveiled its long-awaited strategy to reduce plastic waste last month, one quote seemed to stick in peoples’ minds.
“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050,” Frans Timmermans, the Commission first vice-president, told a press conference. “The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.”
That statistic, from a 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, has been widely reported. After years of growing public concern, 2018 is the year that policymakers appear set to respond in a major way.
This year’s World Environment Day on 5 June will be devoted to plastics pollution. Four days later, Canada will host this year’s G7 summit and devote the meeting to tackling plastic waste, hoping to convince the other wealthy nations to commit to a zero plastics waste goal.
Members of the United Nations signed up to a loose version of this goal at a summit in Nairobi in December. And in October, companies meeting at the Our Oceans conference in Malta committed to provide funding to help retrieve plastic waste from the ocean.
In the days following the Commission’s policy, and a similar but far less ambitious strategy from the British government one week earlier, a number of retailers announced new plans to change their use of plastics.
One day after the Commission put forward its strategy, McDonalds announced that all of its packaging will come from sustainable sources by 2025 – up from half today. Within seven years, all of the 37,000 McDonalds restaurants in the world will recycle packaging – up from just 10% today.
A few days later Danone, the French company which produces the Evian water brand, announced that all of its plastic bottles will come from 100 percent recycled plastic by 2025. British grocery chain Iceland has promised to reduce plastic packaging from its own branded products, and Costa Coffee has promised to remove plastic drinking straws from its stores this year. All of these companies have cited demand from their customers as the reason for making the change.
“Public concern about plastics pollution has been growing over recent years,” says Delphine Lévi Alvarès, coordinator of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, a group of NGOs working to reduce plastic use. “Plastic pollution is visible for people, and it touches their heart because it’s harming marine creatures and polluting the places where they go on holiday.
It’s a visible pollution, compared to climate change and CO2 emissions which, especially in Western countries, people don’t see right away the effect on their lives”.
A world without plastics?
Plastics manufacturers, along with retailers and recyclers, have welcomed the Commission’s strategy. Karl Foerster, PlasticEurope’s executive director, says the industry understands that it has a role to play in making sure plastics are made to be recyclable as possible – even if it took a while to get there.
“We want the rate of recycling of plastics to increase significantly,” he says. “Three years ago I couldn’t have said that, because not all members would have agreed with that statement. That has already changed the relationship with recyclers, because it’s not a conflictual situation in terms of business. We have improved that relationship very much.”
“It was a difficult process,” he adds. “You see also over that time changes in corporate strategies of our members. But it was important to us that the entire industry is committed to it and thinking alike. It doesn’t help us if we have three companies that say great, and others that say this is the end of our life.”
Foerster says he doesn’t mind the intense scrutiny plastics is under at the moment. “We are happy that plastics is in the spotlight right now, because it also makes people more aware of the benefits, and why we use plastics. You always have to ask, what’s the alternative?”
A study published last year by the consultancy Trucost assessed some of the alternatives, in an attempt to measure the overall environmental and sustainability cost of using plastics instead of alternative materials. It looked not only at waste but also at water consumption, CO2 emissions and air pollution.
The study found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials such as glass and paper would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. The major cause for the difference is the ease of production and lightweight nature of plastics. Much larger quantities of alternative materials are needed to fulfil the same purposes as plastics.
Environmental campaigners, however, don’t buy this argument. Levi Alvares notes that what counts is whether products are reused and recycled, and this is easier to do with glass and paper. Much of the plastic packaging that companies use is wholly unnecessary and needs no alternative. And in the case of plastic cutlery, washable reusable materials are better in any lifecycle analysis.
“They’ve been very present in the debate with this lifecycle assessment,” she says. “The flexible plastics industry is, for instance, emphasizing lifetime extension for meat, by preserving it longer. But it’s not recyclable.”
Foerster says there is no reason environmental campaigners and the industry need to be ideological enemies in this transition. “We have always said the worst thing we can do with plastic waste is to landfill it, because this is a resource for us,” he says. “We need to see waste not as waste. It only becomes waste when it’s wasted. As long as we use it as a resource – recycle it, reuse it or recover the energy from it, then we have a benefit from it.”
The association has set itself a less ambitious timeline for making plastics reusable or recyclable: 60% by 2030. They want all plastics to be reusable, recycleable or used for energy recovery by 2040.
But while interests may align when it comes to promoting plastics recycling, the idea of decreasing the use of plastics altogether is likely to continue to be resisted by the industry.
As the plastics strategy works through the EU legislative process over the coming year, this is likely to be where the main battles are fought. Should the EU focus its efforts in increasing recycling, or in phasing out the use of plastics?