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Paving the way for a sustainable production and consumption of plastics
Larissa Copello de Souza
Zero Waste Consumption and Production Campaigner, Zero Waste Europe
When it comes to plastics, and especially single-use applications, recycling alone is not enough. The production of plastics has increased 20-fold in the past half-century, and it is expected to grow even more. Single-use and short-lived plastic applications have the highest disposal rates, the lowest recyclability, and pose a major challenge to our health, ecosystems and economy.
Downstream solutions alone cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis
In fact, most of the plastics we use are designed to have a short useful life, sometimes even a matter of minutes. Although initiatives to boost collection rates and recycling are welcome, these downstream solutions alone cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis. There is just too much plastic being produced and used to be managed and handled. Instead, we need to tackle the problem at its root. Market restrictions (such as bans) on single-use plastic products are an example of upstream solutions that can help beat plastic pollution and pave the way towards a deeper systemic change in the way we consume resources and create waste.
For Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) transformational change is needed when it comes to the use of materials as a whole. In the case of plastics, as for many other materials, single-use does not make sense. We need to shift towards a sustainable production and consumption that allows us to keep within the environmental boundaries of our planet, with no hazard for people’s health or our ecosystems, and in line with a circular economy (where incineration and landfill are not an option). It is our government’s’ interest to prioritise investment that focus on quality products that are resilient and long-lasting, rather than on short-term applications.
We need to shift towards a sustainable production and consumption that to keep within the environmental boundaries of our planet
Reducing single-use plastic is not only needed and feasible, it also has the potential to boost the local economy, while allowing savings in the management of littering and low-value waste, which has also been stressed in the UN environment report, according to which “bans on single-use plastics can be a step towards more comprehensive policies aiming at reducing the generation of plastic waste and at replacing single-use plastics with more sustainable, environmentally friendly alternatives”.
Cutting on single-use plastic products, making plastics responsible by design (long-lasting, reusable, recyclable, toxic-free, and incorporating recycled content), and investing in waste prevention systems, such as reuse, are key to curb plastic pollution and ensure a more sustainable management of resources.
Banning Plastics Does not Solve the System Problem
Circular Economy Fellow, World Ressources Institute
Use of single-use plastics (think wrappers, straws and bags) has skyrocketed over the last few decades. Our ability to recycle these plastics at scale remains poor. Globally, 8 million metric tons of plastic trash leak into our natural spaces each year, harming wildlife, mucking up the ocean and jeopardizing people’s livelihoods.
We can’t just ban bad products—we must invest in alternatives
It’s encouraging that governments are focusing on passing laws to fight single use plastic. Unfortunately, while these laws may reduce the most visible form of plastic pollution, it could be at the expense of other environmental impacts. That’s because, somewhat ironically, disposable plastic bags require fewer resources (land, water, CO2 emissions, etc.) to produce than paper, cotton or reusable plastic bags—by a wide margin.
For example, Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food found that you would need to reuse a paper bag at least 43 times for its per-use environmental impacts to be equal to or less than that of a typical disposable plastic bag used one time. An organic cotton bag must be reused 20,000 times to produce less of an environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. That would be like using a cotton bag every day for nearly 55 years. (Note that these figures aggregate the bags’ impact on water use, CO2 emissions, land use and more, but they do not include their impact on plastic pollution.)
Banning plastic straws is also increasingly popular. But these bans leave the impression that they solve the plastics pollution problem without much discussion of systematic solutions. As a society, we should think holistically about the products we use and their impacts. We can’t just ban bad products—we must invest in alternatives.
We need to invest in redesigning plastics
Governments need to team up with private industry to address more systemic issues. We need to invest in redesigning plastics so that they can be readily broken down into their molecular units and remanufactured into new plastics of the same quality, the essence of a closed loop system. We need better recycling technology that can address the major obstacle of recycling plastics: about 25 percent of plastics collected are contaminated and therefore unusable. We need to reinvest government budgets in the infrastructure and associated policies needed for these systemic solutions. Once these technologies are deployed at a large scale, we can start recapturing the economic value of plastics, incentivizing their recovery and recycling, while minimizing plastic pollution and overconsumption of natural resources.
Banning single-use plastic bags and straws without significant further action is putting a finger on a spigot at a time when we need to suppress the tidal wave. Moreover, it may have the unintended effect of relieving public and government pressure for budget investments and comprehensive policy solutions and innovation by the private sector throughout the value chain.