Understand the complex plastics picture to find lasting solutions

14 June 2018

Improving resource efficiency and reducing the negative impacts of plastics on the environment is a complex issue and demands specific actions which recognise the wide range of contexts in which plastics are used and their life cycles, says a new report.

‘Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: a use-based approach to decision and policy making’ is published by the Resourcing the Future partnership (CIWM, ESA, the Resource Association and WRAP) and authored by environmental consultants at Resource Futures and Nextek.

In response to marine litter pollution and unnecessary plastic packaging, there has recently been a swathe of new well-intentioned initiatives announced, but often in isolation and without a solid evidence base. The report shows that while civil society and industry stakeholders may be looking for clarity, over-simplification of the issues without recognising the uniqueness of each plastics application, and its associated impacts, risks pursuing ineffective and costly interventions.

The ground-breaking research analyses the impacts of plastics in the context of how long they are used for. Five ‘use phase categories’ have helped to identify the ‘sweet-spot’ for action, which acknowledges the complexity but allows a wide range of products, sometimes from different industrial sectors but with similar impacts, to be grouped together. It is anticipated that these groupings can be used by those across the plastics value chain to make decisions on improving plastic resource efficiency, from design and manufacture to increasing reuse and recycling.

This research recognises the tremendous benefits that plastics provide and addresses some of the potential drawbacks of using alternative materials. It is therefore important to take a proportionate and evidence-based approach to create a more resource efficient economy.

The UK secondary plastics sector has a critical role to play. Currently it is heavily dependent on global export markets, but recent market shocks such as the restrictions on imports of post-consumer plastic waste by China have highlighted an opportunity to de-risk through increasing UK capacity.

The report shows how the demand for waste plastics can and should be increased, by increasing the amount of recycled plastics used in products. In addition, designing products for easier mechanical recycling will enable more products to be recycled. And in some cases, plastic packaging may be completely unnecessary and can be designed out or avoided altogether.

Co-author Ed Cook, Senior Consultant at Resource Futures, said: “This new guidance is an important contribution to helping businesses and policymakers make informed decisions and it is hoped that our research will be used to help identify and focus on the most important impacts.

“One area we’re untangling is the confusion around ‘bioplastics’. Not all bioplastics made from organic material are biodegradable, and some bioplastics which are biodegradable, are made from oil-based ‘fossil’ material.” The report identifies the need for the whole value chain to work together to agree the role these materials play and how they are managed alongside other plastic materials, in order to avoid potentially introducing significant issues in to the value chain.

Sam Reeve, CEO of Resource Futures, said: “We’ve been supporting the public and private sectors to reduce plastic waste for years, so it’s great to see so much attention now on this issue. The recently launched Plastics Pact, the EU circular economy package and the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan make commitments to address the issue of plastic waste, and we’re pleased to be providing the government with independent research to inform important policy decisions on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.

“This latest research for the Resourcing the Future partners highlights the need for a co-ordinated sector response but also that there are opportunities to improve resource efficiency across all types of plastic use, not just packaging.  There is not one silver bullet or stakeholder that can solve the issues. The report sets out a range of priority interventions that could offer the greatest impact.

“Creating strong markets for recycled plastics is also an important piece of the puzzle. It is still cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it, and only 18% of plastics globally is recycled. Resource Futures’ recent report for the OECD, ‘Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics: Trends, Prospects and Policy Responses’ demonstrates the multiple challenges involved in creating strong markets for secondary plastics, from the use of additives in plastics which can make them unviable for recyclers, to the variable environmental standards in the countries we export our plastic waste to.”