Understanding context key to tackling avoidable plastic waste

Research presented on behalf of the Resourcing the Futures Partnership has identified a new system of categorisation for plastics, based on use cases, in a bid to improve understanding of how to reduce the harmful effects of plastic on the environment.

Plastic pollution – especially in our oceans – has dominated the news this year. World Environment Day and World Oceans Day, both held earlier this month, focused on dramatically decreasing plastic waste. However, a new report by environmental consultants at Resource Futures and Nextek, 'Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: A use-based approach to decision and policy making', warns that the rapid change in consumer interests could pressure businesses into announcing initiatives without solid evidence to support them, and that over-simplification of the complex issues surrounding plastics could work against efforts to transition towards a circular economy.

The report highlights the numerous contexts in which plastics are used, acknowledging their undeniable benefits, and outlines the need for varied strategies to eliminate waste, which can only be successful if enforced on a large scale, rather than by individual companies. Additionally, the magnitude of the issue means that the challenges cannot be dealt with by the waste and resources sector alone; stakeholders across the supply chain must collaborate to implement measures that result in the most sustainable outcome.

Plastic straws are one of the items identified as being very short use
Plastic straws are one of the items identified as being very short use

The report focuses on specific key steps forward:

  • Designing and manufacturing plastic products for more extended use and better end-of-life treatment or disposal;
  • Maximising environmental benefits during the use of plastic products;
  • Increasing the amount of plastics that can be, and are, re-used, recycled and recovered; and
  • Increasing the amount of recycled plastics used in products.

The report’s authors identify the need to recognise the diversity of plastics, rather than view them as a single material. In response to extensive research, a new system of categorisation has been developed, based on the length of time plastics are used. The five ‘use phase categories’ focus attention on the dominant life-cycle impacts of different materials, grouping together products from various industrial sectors that share a similar environmental impact. The categories range from ‘very short use’ such as cotton buds, plastic straws, confectionary wrappers or clothing tags, used in less than a day, to ‘long use’, which encapsulates window-frames, plumbing roof tiles and similar items, with expected use of over 12 years. Their resource efficiency takes into account this length of use as well as functional benefits and what happens at the end of the product's life.

The Resourcing the Futures Partnership consists of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the Resource Association and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). The report includes key actions required to combat the specific groupings, and it is anticipated that these groups could be used across the plastics value chain to improve resource efficiency.

'The need for a co-ordinated sector response'

The report goes on to identifiy the crucial role of the secondary commodities market in the UK. Although currently dependent on global exports, having shifted significant waste streams to Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia after China banned the import of 24 grades of solid waste at the start of the year, these recent changes provide an opportunity to de-risk by increasing UK capacity. Indeed, last week a report by the Green Alliance found that, if domestic infrastructure were to be expanded, recycled plastics could provide 71 per cent of the raw materials needed by UK manufacturers of plastic products.

There are currently a number of significant economic, technical and regulatory barriers that are rectricting the secondary plastics sector, but the report states that demand for waste plastics can be stimulated by increasing the amount of recycled plastics used in products, while also designing products to be easier to recycle mechanically.

Ed Cook, co-author of the report and 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 creating significant issues into the value chain.

Sam Reeve, CEO of Resource Futures, added: “This latest research for Resourcing the Future highlights the need for a co-ordinated sector response but also that there are opportunities to act to improve the 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 be used to offer the greatest impact.

“Creating strong markets for recycled plastics is also an important piece of the puzzle. At the moment it is cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it, and only 18 per cent 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.”

The report, 'Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: A use-based approach to decision and policy making' can be read in full on the CIWM website.

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