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Policymakers can break the plastics stalemate

Policymakers across the world have a vital role to play in the transition towards a plastics system that works.

More than ever, there is global momentum for a fundamental shift in how we produce, use and reuse plastics. This material and its applications, like packaging, are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits. Their linear, take-make-dispose value chains on the other hand entail significant economic and environmental drawbacks, which are becoming more apparent by the day. This growing recognition is triggering action by a wide range of stakeholders, including policymakers. It’s not about dragging makers and users of plastics kicking and screaming into a circular economy – considered and collaborative policy can stimulate progress towards a fundamentally better plastic system.

This is because policymakers are uniquely positioned to put in place enabling conditions that allow the whole supply chain to transition towards a future-proof plastics economy. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but there’s something of a stalemate in the industry. Designers and manufacturers often wish recyclers had the technology and capacity to handle their latest plastic products. From the recyclers’ perspective, simplifying packaging types and materials could make their job a whole lot easier. Who’s going to make the first move? This is where policymakers can step in.

Image: © srki66 / stock.adobe.com

Policymakers can level the playing field for these upstream and downstream developments to happen in parallel. There are many ways that they can do this, as explored in the latest New Plastics Economy report. It might be about connecting different steps of the supply chain to foster pre-competitive collaboration; providing businesses with information and funding; developing the right infrastructure; boosting secondary material markets; or installing fiscal and regulatory frameworks to reduce or eliminate negative externalities.

Understanding this myriad of policy measures to support a system change, policymakers can crucially break this current stalemate which prevents individual companies from shifting the entire plastics packaging value chain on their own. Many of these measures have been already been implemented in some place, or are being explored.

One concrete example is Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, schemes. These systems allow policymakers to connect upstream packaging design with downstream recycling of plastics. EPR is a policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product covers the entire product life cycle, from design to the post-consumer phase. For plastic packaging, often this principle is translated into an EPR scheme through which the producers are paying for the amount of (plastic) packaging they put on the market, which funds other organisations taking care of after-use collection and sorting. As such, it’s a policy tool that can provide (part of) the crucial funding for making the recycling of plastic packaging work. Also, when it uses modulated fees differentiating between packages, it can incentivise good design, improving the quality and economics of recycling. Implemented well, EPR schemes can have large impact: OECD research suggests, for example, that EPR schemes contributed to a 27% increase in recycling rates of containers and packaging waste in Japan over a 4 year period. Such a scheme doesn’t happen by itself, and sophisticated policy that seeks to support industry whilst eliminating waste requires time and effort from the various parties at the table.

Learn more about a plastics system that fits with circular economy principles through the New Plastics Economy website

Of course, there’s another way for policymakers to maintain a level playing field whilst driving progress, and it’s one we’ve become more familiar with in recent years. For certain practices or applications, bans or levies are straight-forward measures that can have big impacts. A ban on the landfilling of plastics, for example, could provide a firm shove in the right direction, towards after-use practices that capture the value of packaging material, as already explored by several regions. Also banning specific applications, like single-use plastic carrier bags for example, has allowed policymakers to achieve better environmental and economic outcomes. In 2002, Bangladesh was one of the first countries to ban polythene bags, as clogging drainage pipes were found to have been one of the main reasons for devastating floods, and just recently, India’s capital city Delhi has introduced a ban on disposable plastic, following complaints about environmental pollution. Similarly, by implementing a tax on plastic shopping bags, Ireland has cut its use by more than 90% and raised millions of euros in revenue.

There’s more than one way to crack the nut of a circular plastics system, and each stakeholder will need to play its role. A finessed, dialogue driven approach such as EPR can support innovation across the value chain. At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for the ‘sledgehammer’ of prohibition, which can deliver more immediate results for certain applications. These are just two of the measures available to policymakers, a group that are uniquely positioned to support the shift towards a plastics system that works.

To learn more about the role policymakers can play in the transition towards a plastics system that works, please visit www.newplasticseconomy.org

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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