Rethinking Plastics – Sources and Solutions

The World Plastics Council (WPC) is made up of representatives from companies that produce plastic resin; it is a platform where members can talk about and address common global related issues. Its main focus is to promote the sustainable and responsible use of plastics; to represent the global plastics industry to other stakeholders; to coordinate and unite efforts to achieve practical solutions (rather than banning plastics) and to share best practices from across various regions.

A couple of weeks ago its founder, Patrick Thomas, Chairman of Johnson Matthey plc, delivered one of the key speeches at EcoVadis Sustain 2019 on Plastic Pollution: Sources and Solutions.

He began by talking about the growing awareness and scale of plastic pollution – especially in the oceans which is fast becoming a global challenge. Before 2050, he reminds us there will be more weight of plastics in the ocean than fish, but the real problem is what is on the sub-surface. We don’t know how to clean it up and it can damage the ocean environment. A fishing net thrown overboard today, for example, will be there in 600 years before degradation takes place.

We have a growing amount of waste coming from a growing world. From when we started using plastic in the 1950s, out to just a few years ago, we have produced 8.3 giga tons of virgin plastics, and as of 2015 about 6.3 Gton waste has been generated of which less than 9% was recycled, 12% incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12 Gton of plastic waste will be generated by 2050 (Source Guyer, Lambeck, Law 2017).

But the answer to the problem of plastics leaking into the environment is not an outright ban. Plastics are far too useful (sometimes even contributing to lessening environmental damage) to simply cease production. Hygienic packaging helps reduce food waste, requires fewer vehicles and less fuel to transport it, and makes a positive contribution to saving  resources and reducing emissions, among other things (source: Bernd Brandt and Harald Pilz, 2011).

So would replacing plastics with alternative materials reduce the environmental cost of consumer goods? he asks, and what are the hidden costs of unsustainable use of natural resources? In this regard he cites $98 billion in environmental costs for more sustainable plastic; $139 billion for business-as-usual plastic; $533 billion for alternatives to plastic. So the environmental cost of alternative materials is about four times the cost of existing plastics (source: Trucost, part of S&P Global).

The answer must be to change the way we think about waste: “waste may become a source of resource,” he says. We must find concrete solutions, one of which should be giving a new life to plastics waste. This will require new circular business models and investment in waste management (particularly for those countries which as yet have not the infrastructure in place to deal with and repurpose waste). The ultimate answer is re-use.

Europe has a vision for a new plastics economy: it is aiming for 100% plastics packaging to be re-usable or recyclable by 2030, involving a four-times growth in sorting and recycling capacity and technology, substances hampering the process to be replaced, innovative materials and alternative feedstocks to be developed, to name a few of the EC’s plastics strategy goals.


What can procurement do now?

  • Engage in your companies’ supply chain design to enable circularity – work with partners
  • Demand that suppliers design packaging for collection and reuse or recycling
  • Insist that your products and their packaging are designed for collection and reuse or recycling
  • See circularity as an opportunity to create brand loyalty

And for more information visit The World Plastics Council.

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