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Plastics have been a part of our lives for years, but they pose numerous challenges to producers, consumers and society as a whole. These are challenges we must address today, to come up with solutions before it is too late.
Challenge: repositioning the image of plastic from “waste” to a “raw material”
Marine litter is rightly pushing plastic up the agenda for governments, packaging producers, brand owners and individuals. Plastic containers are a big part of this problem, but the issue is also more wide-ranging. More than half of the plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from nets, ropes and lines used by the fishing industry . And most – 70 per cent – of marine litter, which also includes glass, metal and other marine waste, sinks to the ocean floor . But because plastic bottles float, they are the most visible and symbolic example of the issue.
The heart of the problem is not simply plastic itself, however, but how we manage plastic beyond its first use. The vast majority of applications use polymer packaging only once, and as soon as it fulfils its function, it is automatically classified as waste. But in fact, PET packaging is still a usable raw material – it can be recycled many times.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy report highlights how “the shift towards a circular economy in which plastics never become waste, while creating economic opportunities, seems to be an effective strategy for tackling the problem of marine litter. This transition will require coordinated actions from policy makers, waste managers, the private sector and financial actors.”
According to the same report, 95 per cent of plastic packaging material – worth between $80 to $120 billion – is lost to the economy each year after being used just once . Recyclable plastic is a valuable resource, and it’s crucial we don’t waste it. Manufacturers across the supply chain need to understand the impact of their products, and understand that shifting to this mindset – where no plastic waste is justified – is critically important. It is important to understand too that we are all participants in the value chain and product life–cycle. Each of us, from the producer of raw materials to the consumer, has a responsibility and a part to play in how such products are disposed of at the end of their life–cycle.
Challenge: developed countries need to take responsibility for the disposal of exported plastic waste
The export of plastic waste to southeast Asia by developed countries has contributed hugely to the current levels of marine pollution. In 2016, about three million tons of waste was exported from Europe, more than 50 per cent of which ended up in China. Southeast Asian countries lack the necessary infrastructure to correctly process plastic waste, which leads to waste ending up in rivers, where it flows to the coast, and from there, the ocean.
States with developed economies must take responsibility, by financing activities to clean the environment of discarded plastic. Most developing countries, such as China, Vietnam and Malaysia, have now banned the import of plastic waste, and it seems highly probable that this ban will lead to the development of a circular economy. However, Europe still lacks the infrastructure for collecting and sorting plastic, as well as the capacity for recycling plastic waste.
Challenge: building an infrastructure to collect and sort polymer packaging
The EU Directive on Single Use Plastics stipulates that 90 per cent of all PET beverage bottles used must be collected for recycling by 2029. However, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy research consultancy, this is a challenging target indeed for countries without the appropriate infrastructure.
In 2017 the average collection rate in Europe was 58 per cent. Germany and Norway have already achieved the 90 per cent collection rate target, while Bulgaria and Greece collection rates stood at 17 per cent and 29 per cent respectively in 2017. Wood Mackenzie forecasts that, to reach the 2029 target, EU member states would need to collect twice as many PET beverage bottles, by weight, than they did in 2017. But these targets will only be reached with the development of a systematic approach to the collection and sorting of plastic packaging and related infrastructure .
Challenge: the creation of additional recycling facilities
The EU Directive on Single Use Plastics also sets requirements for the percentage of recycled PET – or rPET – in all PET bottles – to 25 per cent by 2025, then 30 per cent by 2030. According to Wood Mackenzie’s forecasts, these plans would require 70 new production sites in Europe, each with an average annual capacity of 30,000 tons.
If this were not challenging enough, only by establishing the proper infrastructure for the collection and sorting of used polymer packaging – the raw material for recycling plants – in the first place, will it be possible to attract sufficient investment to construct these sites. We need strong, established waste collection systems if we want to spark investment in new plastic processing facilities.
Challenge: increasing PET packaging recyclability by decreasing additives and colourants
Colourants and additives used in the production of PET packaging usually hinders their recyclability. Black PET packaging, and other dark colours, in particular can be difficult to recycle, as most automatic sorting machines do not identify it as plastic at all.
Also, the original colour of the bottle will affect the colour of any rPET produced from it, making it unattractive as a form of packaging. Some additives also degrade during the recycling process, rendering the resulting r-PET unsuitable for food applications. But once these hurdles are overcome, black PET will become a useful resource, as it can be used to mix a wide range of rPET colours.
Solving problems like these means we will be able to increase both the collection of recycled plastic and the quality and attractiveness of rPET packaging for consumers.
Challenge: increase consumer awareness of the final stage of the polymer packaging life-cycle and introduce a culture of conscious consumption
The increase in the pace of modern life in recent decades has run parallel to an increase in consumption. Society needs more and more containers for the goods it produces and consumes, which means it creates more and more waste.
Environmental pollution is global, and it concerns everyone. Since we all negatively affect the environment, we must all share responsibility. Ecological problems must be tackled by both businesses and governments, but consumers should also play their part, and by increasing public awareness of conscious consumption and proper disposal of waste we can start the ball rolling.
Measures to solve the problems associated with the use and disposal of plastic, and joint efforts by states, governments, companies and consumers, will ultimately help us tackle this global environmental crisis.