Policymakers across the world have a vital role to play in the transition towards a plastics system that works.
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. The low cost of plastics packaging and lack of sufficient recycling on the other hand entail significant economic and environmental drawbacks. This growing recognition is triggering action by a wide range of stakeholders, including policy makers.
The 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.
Policymakers can play an important role 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.
Applying circular economy principles to global plastic packaging flows could transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as leakage into oceans, according to the report by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with analytical support from McKinsey & Company.
Understanding this myriad of policy measures to support a system change, policymakers can crucially break this current deadlock 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 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 (The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a unique forum where the governments of 34 democracies with market economies work with each other, as well as with more than 70 non-member economies to promote economic growth, prosperity, and sustainable development.)
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.
There’s more than one way to solve the issue of a circular plastics system, and each stakeholder will need to play its role.1) A fine dialogue driven approach such as EPR can support innovation across the value chain. 2) At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for 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.