A use-based approach to policy and decision-making for plastics
In response to increasing public and waste sector attention around issues relating to waste plastics, Resource Futures was commissioned by the Resourcing the Future Partnership (CIWM, WRAP, Resource Association, ESA) to develop a framework to assist product manufacturers, the waste management sector and policy makers with making decisions around waste plastics.
Our report, Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: a use-based approach to decision and policy making, proposed a novel approach which categorises plastics by the length of the use-phase. There is a strong correlation between the lifetime of a product, the way it is discarded and the actions which can be taken to reduce the negative impacts of plastics throughout the life-cycle.
The study aimed to provide guidance on the decision-making processes and tools that will help identify effective interventions to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of plastic, helping stakeholders develop strategies to:
- Design and manufacture plastic products for longer use and better end-of-life treatment or disposal
- Maximise environmental benefits during the use of plastic products
- Increase the amount of plastics that are re-used, recycled and recovered
Several methods were investigated to frame the debate around waste plastics using review of literature and interviews with stakeholders across the plastics value chain. Three were investigated:
- Lifecycle phase (production, use, end-of-life)
- Industrial sector (packaging, automotive, construction etc)
- Length of the use-phase (i.e. the length of time a project is used for its intended purpose)
The length of the use phase emerged as the most useful categorisation as products categorised by lifetime correlated well with the likely mode of discard. Five use-phase categories were used to qualitatively analyse the potential interventions for reducing the negative impacts of plastics across the lifecycle.
Our research proposed that the debate around plastics and plastics waste is reframed. We presented a novel method of categorising waste plastics which found strong correlation between the lifetime of plastic products, the way that they are discarded and the interventions which may be taken to reduce the negative impacts across the lifecycle.
The use-phase was dominant for more than 90% of products due to the tremendous functional benefits offered by plastic products such as protecting food, reducing fuel usage and insulating buildings. For these products, the suggested interventions included increasing their utility, making them more durable, and more easily recyclable.
For shorter use-phase products such as disposable serveware, production was the dominant lifecycle phase, as the functional benefits of these products are comparatively few. However the end-of-life phase also proved important as these products are likely to be discarded improperly and are seldom recycled. The suggested interventions for this range of materials included improving the recyclability of these products alongside provision of adequate facilities to capture them.
For very short use-phase products such as cotton ear buds, sanitary products and straws, the end-of-life phase emerged as being most dominant due to the propensity of these products to occur in mainly marine but also terrestrial environments. Unlike any of the other use phase categories, it was suggested that society accepts a level of pollution from these products and seeks to limit the impact by designing biodegradable alternatives as well as wherever possible finding reuseable replacements.
Read co-author David Lerpiniere’s introduction to the report in this article for CIWM Journal