April 18, 2018

Plastic sustainability in government policy

Most people have heard of the three Rs of the environment – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. As the global waste problem continues to grow, many have started adding additional Rs, such as Renew and Recover. Although significant attention has been paid to conventional recycling of plastics, only a small portion of plastics produced are currently recycled.  While increasing conventional recycling rates is a apriority, with more attention being focused on a creating a circular economy, new focus is being put on conversion technologies, which can complement recycling.

The overarching vision of the circular economy is the reduction of plastics into natural systems and decoupling from fossil feedstock in the plastic production process.  The circular economy will be realized by a combination of technology innovation, and with the collaboration between governments and businesses.

There are several approaches to dealing with the problem of waste disposal, in particular waste generated by plastics.  These approaches include reduction and sorting at source, recycling, incineration and landfilling.

Sustainability is driven from two angles, by the consumer and through government policy.  Consumer- facing industries, such as retail, consumer packaged products and automotive have been naturally the first to be affected by the consumer push for sustainability.  As these consumer-facing industries have increasingly addressed their sustainability practices, initiatives are being pushed back up the value chain. While the economic benefit of investments such as energy efficiency improvements have the potential to be tangible and immediate, the impact of major reformulations and other expensive process changes may be less certain.

Plastic sustainability in government policy

Government policy will be a driving factor in efforts for plastic sustainability.  The impact of regulation is more tangible than consumer sentiment.  It is a key, unavoidable element of business operations and regulation reform on plastics will impact the chemical industry.  Certain governing bodies recognise the need for specific measures on plastic and promoting its reuse, recycling and recovery by enabling the creation of an adequate market environment.

In January 2018, the European Commission (EC) published a vision, continuing from its Circular Economy Package on the future of plastics in the European Union.  The EC wants all plastic packaging in to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, in a cost-effective manner.  The EC will place emphasis on chemicals in plastics within the automotive, furniture and electronic sectors.  Additives need to have the ability to be easily removed for further processing during recycling.  Quality standards for sorted and recycled plastics are to be worked out in 2018. Uniform guidelines for the collection and sorting of waste through Europe are planned to be published in 2019, improving waste separation.

The European Union has established a roadmap and set timelines for achieving zero waste to landfill by 2025, across all member states.  Germany was one of the first countries to introduce landfill limiting policies in the 1990’s.  A ban on landfilling untreated municipal waste, producer responsibility and a focus on separate collection have proven to be an important policy initiatives for increasing recycling rates in Germany.  As a result, landfilling in Germany was almost zero in 2010 and has remained at similar level since.  Countries in Benelux and Scandinavia regions have also implemented landfill restrictions all achieving higher recycling rates of plastic post-consumer waste compared to their counterparts in the European Union.

China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2017 of a proposed untreated solid waste import ban, citing environmental and human health and safety concerns as the primary reasons for the material embargo.  The prohibition covers household plastic wastes.  Specific materials included in the import ban include, waste polymers of ethylene, styrene, vinyl chloride and PET.  Imports of plastic waste into China totalled 7.3 million tons in 2016, with Western Europe, North America accounting for over 30 percent of the waste material.  The import ban was effective at the start of 2018 and will disrupt recycling operations worldwide.

To control the use of recycled plastics and encourage recycling over landfill, national governments have tended to react by enforcing taxes and bans.  A tax or ban on plastic carrier bags has been adopted by several countries including China, Brazil, South Africa, Germany and in states or cities in the United States.  Although taxation and outright bans will serve to encourage recycling, other economic instruments such as subsidies to coordinate recycling projects will need to be part of the solution to move towards a new plastic circular economy.


Ryen Dwivedy, Senior Analyst