Government, Industry and Consumers Transforming the Plastics Industry Together

June 25, 2020 by Scott R. Trenor, Ph.D.

Transforming the future of plastics is no simple task. The New Plastics Economy project – led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment – describes plastics as “the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy, combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost”. Plastic use has increased twenty-fold in the last 50 years and today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastic.

Yet, along with the many benefits that plastics provide to modern society the sustainability challenges they pose continue to grow exponentially. Every year around 95% of plastic packaging material value, or between 80-120 billion dollars, is lost to the economy when it is landfilled or becomes litter1. Plastic waste also threatens earth’s natural systems, such as the oceans and our rivers, and contributes to climate change2.

In this context, re-thinking such a complex global value chain, and building momentum towards a system that works, will take a holistic, future-oriented, systems approach that involves everyone3. Government, industry and consumers will all need to play their part pursuing innovation, and a shared vision, that help to drive the implementation of smart regulations. We will also need to design alternative materials and develop new consumer mindsets towards a circular economy, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained for as long as possible with the generation of waste minimised.

Smart regulations for a sustainable future

The EU Plastics Strategy, the most comprehensive plastics strategy in the world, adopts a material-specific lifecycle approach to tackle plastic waste with the aim of supporting the vision of a smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry. The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan falls within this strategy and both initiatives require smart regulation in order to be successful.

As one element in the transition to a more circular economy, the European Union looked at the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain, taking into account their entire life-cycle, such as reuse, recyclability, biodegradability and the presence of hazardous substances of concern in certain plastics and marine litter. There was broad reflection on possible public policy responses to these challenges, with a focus on supporting and complementing existing measures in order to create synergies with industrial, chemicals, climate, marine, research and innovation policies.

Business and industry associations, member states, trade unions, civil society organisations and third countries were consulted and the EU is open to launching additional studies to target outstanding problems identified in its roadmap in an evolving process that progresses in line with Better Regulation Principles.

R&D pushing the boundaries of possibility

Industry cutting-edge research and development will play a critical role in the development of alternative materials to today’s plastics that are still largely made with fossil fuel feedstocks. Additionally, smart regulations that can incentivize plastic industry R&D to seek out opportunities to increase use of recycled plastics, develop and scale alternative feedstocks to fossil fuels and biodegradable alternatives will speed up change.

Some R&D in the plastics value chain is already pushing sustainability and circular economy boundaries. Milliken’s new Millad® NX® 8000 ECO is a clarifying additive that produces the superb, fully transparent material known as NX UltraClear™ PP, and addresses the growing trend for greater sustainability. It offers average energy savings of 10% in the production of clarified polypropylene (PP) parts, certified by the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) label.

The range of Millad NX 8000 products are also the only PP clarifying agents to meet the voluntary APR Design® Critical Guidance and received Critical Guidance Recognition from the US Association of Plastic Recyclers, validating that the additive is compatible with plastic packaging recycling.

Additional innovations are helping to create value for plastic waste to ensure that it is kept within the economy, e.g., purification, depolymerization and pyrolysis technology. Milliken has partnered with PureCycle Technologies to restore used polypropylene (PP) plastic to 'virgin-like' quality with a revolutionary recycling method. PureCycle’s patented recycling process, developed by P&G and licensed to PureCycle Technologies, removes color, odor and other contaminants from plastic waste feedstock to transform it into virgin-like resin in a big step towards product circularity. Collaborations like these enable circularity and drive Milliken’s 2025 product sustainability goals.

Changing consumer hearts and minds

Most consumers are aware of the challenge of plastic waste yet, despite it being a high-profile issue, until now, the majority of people have not fundamentally changed the way they behave. Successfully changing behavior at scale is a huge, and difficult, undertaking and this is where consumer brands can play a role. Nudge theory sits within the growing field of behavioral economics and proposes that it is possible to persuade people to amend their behavior if changes, or nudges, are introduced into their environments4.

Research shows that many consumers want to change their behavior, but they are looking for guidance on how to do this. A survey conducted by the financial services group ING found that whilst a circular economy requires complex and interconnected changes and coordination from business, customers recognize that individual actions also need to play a role. Some brands are already trialling a range of measures, such as opt outs of receiving single use plastics whilst government Deposit Return Schemes use to financial incentives to recycle5.

The ING survey suggests that there is a willingness to change behavior but that cost and a lack of knowledge are clear barriers to this change, for example uncertainty over which plastics can be recycled that often results in material entering the wrong waste stream and being lost to the economy. Society is going to need help changing their mindsets and everyday actions.

Everyone has a role to play

In order to transform today’s plastics economy towards a circular one, where plastics have a true value, a collective behavioural and cultural shift is necessary. This shift will require an integrated approach involving local, national, and international actors across all sectors of society. Through this collaboration, governments, the private-sector and communities can fundamentally shift how our economy functions and how people live their lives to implement a new plastics economy that runs in a circular process for a better future.


References
1 https://www.newplasticseconomy.org/about/publications/report-2016
2 https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics
3 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/circular-economy-2020/livestream
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_theory
5 https://think.ing.com/uploads/reports/IIS_Circular_Economy_ report_FINAL.PDF