"There is no "away" – A study on how to move towards a circular plastics economy", er en artikkelserie skrevet av Vilma Havas i SALT. Vilma har siden 2019 jobbet med et doktorgradsprosjekt der hun studerer den nåværende, lineære plastøkonomien, og hvordan den kan utvikles til å bli mer bærekraftig og sirkulær. I denne artikkelserien gir hun et innblikk i sitt arbeid gjennom å dele noen av sine funn og erfaringer.
Calling for extended producer responsibility and centralized plastics recycling
A few weeks ago, my colleague Brita Staal and I wrote a comment about the Norwegian packaging organization’s roadmap towards a circular plastics economy, published in Teknisk Ukeblad. In this comment, translated to English below, we called for more ambitious strategy that takes us from a linear plastics economy to a circular one within the next decade, not within 2050, as suggested by the roadmap. The comment focuses only on the roadmap, but the concepts can be applied more widely; we call for more focus on extending producer responsibility, standardizing of plastic materials for more efficient recycling and centralizing recycling efforts. I.e. the responsibility of the creation of a circular plastics economy must be moved from the consumer to the plastic producers, buyers and recyclers.
By 2050, plastic production will account for 15 per cent of global CO2 emissions, if plastic consumption increases at current pace (1).
Today, the global plastics economy is largely linear, but several regulatory measures have been initiated with the aim of a circular global plastics economy. During Arendalsuka in 2019, the “Forum for Circular Plastic Packaging” presented the industry’s own roadmap towards circularity. From a SALT standpoint, the strategy is way too cautious and focused on the major players to have real impact.
We need a paradigm shift to address the environmental challenges associated with the current plastics economy, and we need it now. As with the climate issue, this requires transformation; not incremental improvement.
Objective of increased recycling rate, packaging optimization and new material development
The roadmap starts with an emphasize on the good material properties that plastics have. It is true that plastics contribute to better hygiene, food safety and less food waste, but we cannot ignore the fact that plastic materials also pollute land and sea and contribute to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the roadmap focuses on the recyclability of plastics; a weak argument considering the magnitude of what is currently being recycled.
Finally, the industry’s goal is that together they will increase the recycling rate, packaging optimization and new material development. Most of these points are included as standard for environmental certifications and are rooted in the principle of continuous improvement that is included in all forms of quality management or in work with general sustainability. But perhaps this is the answer to why the industry chooses to focus on a somewhat unclear roadmap, rather than being regulated by the authorities?
Development of future packaging
The industry’s first goal is to establish guides and mobilize packaging users to design for recycling. Furthermore, by 2030, 60 percent of packaging in the Norwegian market is to be based on recycled or renewable materials.
Given the time pressure we have to create sustainable societies, it would be more impactful to set clear requirements on standardization of materials, so that the recycling facilities we build now can handle the plastics that are placed on the market now and in the future.
Knowing that $ 80-120 billion is lost annually in plastic packaging material as a result of a linear plastics economy (1), it would have been interesting to see the Norwegian industry’s estimates of financial gains as a result of keeping materials in a circular system.
The two greatest challenges facing the industry are the difficulty of gaining large enough quantities of sorted and clean plastics of stable quality and little demand for recycled plastics. According to the roadmap, 80 percent of today’s plastic packaging are so-called monomaterials that can be relatively easily recycled.
Causes to these challenges are little efficient recycling schemes as well as consumers not sorting the plastic materials correctly. Therefore, in order to increase supply and demand of recycled plastics now, new systems, financial incentives, and regulatory frameworks are needed.
Requirements for the use of recycled plastic
It is positive that the roadmap focuses on the entire value chain so that the environmental problems are not merely moved from one part of the chain to another. Nevertheless, the reality is that we are lagging far behind in the development of a circular plastics economy, which is why the pace must be turned up. The industry must set requirements for itself so that we can create a 100 percent circular system during this decade, not by 2050.
So, how can we create a stable supply of recycled plastic of good quality, in addition to increasing the demand for recycled plastics now? Taxation or incentive schemes should be used here. We have seen that climate policies based on ‘polluter pays’ schemes which include all externalities caused by an industry, efficiently push forward the transformations needed.
An environmental tax on durable consumer goods and virgin raw materials is thus a key factor in the process of designing future packaging. In addition, focus should be put on setting more stringent regulations in regard to the standardization of materials, creating national recycling schemes (rather than municipal), developing several recycling plants where plastics can be separated from other waste, and extending deposit systems to other plastic products than just PET-bottles.
Mobilize for increased recycling
The industry wants to increase awareness and facilitate easier source segregation, but can we ever reach 100 per cent recovery rate by investing in this type of sorting? The best results come when plastics are centrally sorted in combination with standardized product flows. Examples of this are the Norwegian PET-deposit scheme and the collection scheme for agricultural plastics, which ensure 87 per cent (2) and 85 per cent recovery rates, respectively. Would it not be most effective to focus on a combination of standardization and centralized sorting? Given the cost related to central sorting, standardization led by the industry could have a great impact, also socio-economically.
The strategy states that by 2030 all recycled plastics of high enough quality are to be used in new products, and that all plastic packaging on the Norwegian market should be recyclable to new materials.
Wouldn’t it be more efficient to incorporate recycled materials into production where possible from today? Especially considering that 80 percent of the materials used today are already recyclable. By investing in standardization of plastic materials, it is possible to both increase the supply and demand of high-quality recycled plastics.
The current downstream channels plastic materials are far too little transparent, and much of the plastic waste that leaks into nature from Asia is imported to “recycling” from the western world. It is urgent to create local, closed circles where material flows can be easily followed, and the environmental footprint measured.
Strengthen competence and communication
This is the roadmap’s last focus area and includes goals for increased access to information on the environmental footprint of different packaging types. Here, the goal for 2020 is to include packaging as part of the companies’ sustainability strategy. That companies of this size have not considered packaging as part of their footprints is concerning in itself.
It is important that information about the environmental impacts of plastic packaging throughout the value chain is readily available to industry and consumers now, and not by 2025 as the road map suggests. When manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have access to the same information, it is much easier to choose the packaging types that contribute to the development of a circular plastics economy. The faster this information is available, the faster we will reach the ultimate goal; that “All decisions on the development and use of packaging are based on sound knowledge of the preconditions for circular packaging chains.” – and then preferably well before 2050.
A roadmap with little ambition
The roadmap is written with a lot of sense and little ambition. It is cautious and places a lot of focus on knowledge-based decision-making. But don’t we already know enough to make changes to the system? We must look for solutions that shift the responsibility for recycling from consumers to the industry and professional recyclers. That is why we need the industry to double ambition and speed.
It would have been interesting to see the big ambitions shine through in this team of strong Norwegian producers, who have the opportunity to lead the way in an industry that needs role models. Just imagine what this roadmap could have meant in an international context, if the Norwegian plastic packaging industry had used it to pave the road towards a truly circular, global plastics economy?
(1) World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).
(2) Raadal et al., 2017. Comparison of recycling and incineration of PET bottles. Østfoldsforskning report nr. OR-04-17. https://infinitum.no/om-pantesystemet/panting-og-milj%C3%B8effekt
Har du kommentarer, tilbakemeldinger eller andre henvendelser angående prosjektet, er du velkommen til å kontakte Vilma på firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denne studien er støttet av Norges Forskningsråd og Salt Lofoten (SALT). Veiledere på doktorgraden er Jannike Falk-Andersson fra SALT, Lone Kørnøv fra Danish Center for Environmental Assessment ved Aalborg Universitet, og Jenna Jambeck fra University of Georgia.