EASAC: Can drinks bottle manufacturers lead the way?

25.05.2020

A new report by the EU network of science academies calls for industry to ramp up its effort

 

Responding to growing public concern, the European Commission has launched a range of initiatives within the EU to further stimulate the role of plastics in the circular economy, including a range of measures to improve recycling rates and limit the use of single-use plastics (SUPs). 

 

Nevertheless, the network of national science academies in the EU, EASAC[1], has warned that current efforts to resolve the “plastics crisis” are ineffective and/or misleading. In its recently published report - Packaging plastics in the circular economy[2] - EASAC calls for policymakers and industry to address conflicts in the whole system, from production to end-of-life.  Reducing the leakage of millions of tons of plastic waste into the marine, terrestrial and freshwater environments is incompatible with banking on continued growth in the use of plastics. Taking a comprehensive systems approach, EASAC’s report shows that fundamental and systemic reforms are required along the whole value chain, in order to slow and reverse damage to the environment, biodiversity and ultimately risks to human health.

 

Pollution of the environment by plastics (especially plastic packaging) is an unintended consequence of using plastics, a “social trap”.  Tackling plastic pollution requires the cooperation of a broad range of stakeholders and not the blame game so often seen playing out.  In its report, EASAC’s systems approach reveals many conflicts between different parts of the value chain and tailors its recommendations to different stakeholders.  It raises difficult questions, some of them paradoxical, such as:

 

  • Do designers really think about how to recycle their packaging?
  • Why do refiners continue to invest in perpetual growth models when circular economy is about reducing material flows?
  • Do consumers really want to use less plastic?
  • Why is recycled material often more expensive than virgin plastic, or ruled out on quality grounds?
  • How can shipping waste to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) constitute recycling?

 

Incentives to recycle include setting appropriate Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees, sufficient to influence manufacturer and retailer priorities (that also apply to imported goods and internet purchases), and wide-scale deployment and extension of Deposit-Return Schemes (DRS) to cover a broader range of containers and single-use beverage bottles, based on the principle that such containers should be seen as ‘on loan’.  DRS schemes have been effective in many countries and appear to be one of the ‘success stories’ in recycling. There is clearly scope for extending these to other countries in response to the available excess capacity for PET recycling and the promises from some companies to increase their recycle content. With some of the leading drinks companies being encouraged to do more to increase so far, governments are looking for an active collaboration to ensure regulations, recycling technology and market demand for recycled material are developed faster and in tandem with each other.  It is increasingly incumbent on the bottles manufacturing industry to help lead the way.  The European Federation of Bottled Waters can play its part in this vital and ever more urgent effort.  Also relevant to the drinks industry is EASAC’s call for caution on “bio” labelling of products, which should be based on life cycle assessments and not on stic assumptions or claims that ‘bio’ signifies lower environmental impact.

 

Outside PET recycling, the report notes that mixed plastics (including bottle labels and tops) present huge challenges and have tended to go to landfill, or incineration (with or without energy recovery), or be exported to LMICs. The report recommends this unethical export practice is halted and Europe deals with its own waste by (1) devising a more flexible, hierarchical recycling infrastructure (closed loop recycling – downcycling - molecule recycling - energy recovery), and (2) simplifying the number of polymers used in plastics packaging. More work is also required to develop faster and more reproducible rates of degradability – particularly in uses where leakage into the environment is common.

 

Recent industry-led initiatives are encouraging, such as the European Plastics Pact in partnership with government, and the Circular Plastic Alliance (CPA)’s target of at least 10 million tons of recycled plastics used annually for products and packaging in Europe by 2025.  They are reassuring confirmation that industry leaders accept that the linear economy for plastics must change towards a circular model.  The collective challenge is to create an environment for packaging plastics use that allows the many benefits of plastics to be exploited without the current extensive negative side-effects.

 

 

Authors:

Professor Michael Norton, EASAC Programme Director (Environment)

Dr Tracey Elliott, EASAC Strategy Adviser

 


[1] The European Academies Science Advisory Council is a consortium of all 28 of Europe’s science academies that analyses issues emerging from science and which are on the European policy agenda.


by PEAK Sourcing