Better future for plastics
In a special interview for GPCA Insight Express, Benny Mermans, Chairman, World Plastics Council (WPC), and Vice President Sustainability, Chevron Phillips Chemical, discusses the opportunities to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, while also addressing plastic waste in the environment
Can you tell us more about the INC-2 meeting on a global agreement on plastic pollution – what is its significance for the industry and what is the World Plastics Council’s (WPC’s) role?
Last year, governments agreed to move forward with negotiating a global agreement to address plastic waste in the environment. The negotiations are structured around a series of five Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (“INC”) meetings and due to be completed by the end of 2024.
The recent INC-2 meeting in Paris resulted in the decision to draft a first proposal – the so-called “zero draft”. This will provide the basis for further substantive negotiations at INC-3 around the measures and commitments needed to deliver on the objectives set out in the zero draft.
For WPC and the global plastics industry, this agreement provides an important opportunity to accelerate the transition to a more circular economy for plastics. It also represents a risk that certain governments will seek to limit the production and use of plastics by society, making it difficult to achieve our collective goals of a lower carbon future whilst improving the quality of life for people across the globe.
As the voice of the global plastics industry, WPC has a very important role to play in representing the industry and helping to build bridges and find a common purpose with other stakeholders participating in the negotiations. This is vital if we are to create a multiplier effect which accelerates the transition to circularity globally.
What are the key challenges and opportunities in accelerating the transition to circularity?
The plastics industry is already undertaking huge investments and deploying new technology and innovations to help design out waste and increase use of circular feedstocks, in particular plastic waste derived feedstock to produce plastics.
The greatest challenge we face in rapidly scaling-up this transformation is access to plastic waste as a feedstock for new plastic production. The demand from our customers (converters and brand owners) is there, but a reliable, consistent supply of used plastics from which we can produce new circular plastic is missing.
There is, however, a significant opportunity to create a win-win situation in which society can continue to benefit from plastics without plastic waste ending up in the environment. This is about reframing the way we produce, design, use, reuse and recycle plastics, while building a circular economy model that will work for every country.
One of the keys to realizing this opportunity, and why I am confident about our enabling role, is that science and innovation is in our industry’s DNA and has helped us to successfully respond to all the challenges we have faced.
The role of waste management and recycling infrastructure is significant to the plastic waste challenge. What more can be done to ensure the right infrastructure is in place and which regions are most affected by a lack of adequate infrastructure?
While developing countries tend to be most impacted by a lack of adequate infrastructure, even the most developed countries have not yet achieved circularity for plastics. Circularity is a journey, with all governments starting at different points. A successful, lasting global agreement must meet governments where they are, providing tools and learnings to help them move forward on this journey based on the local circumstances each country faces.
In some instances, development of basic waste management and collection systems are needed to keep plastic and other waste out of the environment. In other areas, access to recycling infrastructure or deployment of recycling technologies are needed. Solutions will vary from country to country and municipality to municipality, however the overarching goal must be the same, to keep plastic waste out of the environment.
How does WPC support efforts to drive circularity and action on plastic waste management globally?
WPC engages governments through various multilateral forums, such as the global plastics agreement negotiations and the Basel Convention, advocating for policies to accelerate circularity. WPC develops messaging, hosts high-level events, and works with partner associations to engage governments. We also work closely together with other plastic industry associations to broaden adoption of Operation Clean Sweep® (OCS®), a certified program to prevent plastic pellet/materials loss in the environment throughout the value chain.
What more can the plastic industry and other stakeholders do to address the plastic waste challenge? What is the role of collaboration?
The plastic industry is taking several important steps to accelerate the transition to circularity. These include making substantial investments around the globe in multiple recycling systems and technologies to significantly increase the types and amounts of plastics that can be recycled. The industry is also creating new business models based on circularity, designing new products made with recycled plastics, and redesigning packaging for longer use, reuse and recyclability.
Accelerating the transition to circularity, while maintaining the benefits of plastics requires collaborative action across industry and governments. WPC plays a key role in this effort, working closely with governments and the United Nations to bring together key members of the plastic industry with government officials. Through sharing information on industry innovations and listening to the needs of governments, WPC identifies and advances solutions to address the plastic waste challenge in key multilateral forums.
What kind of policies and regulations do we need to enable change on plastic waste and a move towards circularity?
As an industry, we are committed to an ambitious global agreement to help governments meet their goal of eliminating additional plastic pollution in the environment. It should include a requirement for globally harmonized measures that promote effective implementation of the agreement, and support governments as they develop plans and policies which take account of their national and local circumstances.
Policies that recognize the importance of waste management infrastructure as the foundation for a circular economy are essential. This includes access to collection and environmentally sound waste management for the 3 billion people that presently lack it. Incentives that enable deployment of recycling technologies (both mechanical and chemical), access to plastic waste as a resource, and the use of circular (or recycled) plastic in products and packaging will help accelerate the transition to a circular economy, while also addressing plastic waste in the environment.
Policy should provide the regulatory and market certainty required to unlock investment in the recycled plastics value chain, and existing and new financing mechanisms, including public-private partnerships and blended finance, should be focused on building national and regional capacity.
To avoid environmental pitfalls all policy and regulation needs to be based on well-established scientific principles that enable circularity and reduce the environmental footprint of plastic products and packaging.