INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Rhetoric meets reality in plastic waste targets

By Kevin Quast, Global Commercialization Lead of Honeywell’s Plastics Circularity Business

If good intentions were enough, we would have no problem with plastics. There is no shortage of ambition, targets, and commitments to stem the tide of waste plastics and resulting pollution.

Although there have been several global treaties and agreements for the elimination or reduction of plastic waste in the past couple of years, these have had little to no effect on the increase in plastics usage and resulting waste. The problem with these multi-national treaties is that there is no way to enforce compliance, which leads to worthwhile desire but “toothless” agreements.

There has been some action on the national level. In the U.S., Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California have all committed to cutting plastic waste through extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, making plastics packaging producers responsible for funding their clean-up, mainly through recycling. New York is currently considering similar regulations, too.

In March, we saw the passage of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) in the EU. The PPWR’s main objective is to reduce packaging waste by at least 15% below 2018 levels by 2040. The regulation focuses on packaging recyclability, minimum recycled material content, and reusability. This regulation also requires online retailers to be accountable for packaging waste disposal and recycling, making the online retailers part of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements.

The passage of the PPWR complements the existing European laws that are also already in place, including the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), which requires EPR of all Member States. The European Union is the most aggressive when it comes to addressing waste with new regulations regularly coming into force.

Reducing plastic waste: big ambitions, little progress

It’s one thing to have lofty ambitions to reduce plastic waste. It’s another to achieve them. The will is there; it’s not yet clear we’ve found a way. As an example, in 2014 California banned single-use plastic bags; however, that didn’t stop the waste plastic problem. It was executed poorly and allowed thicker, supposedly multi-use plastics bags to flourish only to find that they, too, were being discarded. The California Senate is now proposing legislation to ban all plastic bags at check-outs (paper will still be available) in hope of reducing single-use plastic consumption.[1],[2]

In the United Kingdom, where EPR reporting requirements came into force at the end of February, surveys suggest businesses are unprepared. Across Europe, despite some progress, there’s also a significant lack of alignment in the detail of regulations and how they are implemented.

What is missing in the legislation is a full view of the end-to-end plastic circularity value chain. There is no doubt that the revised legislation should cut down on the amount of plastic in use and the environment through banning plastic bags at check-outs. What it doesn’t take into consideration are the implications of switching out these plastics for the alternatives: multi-use fabric (many times also made of plastic or combination plastic-fiber materials) and paper. Both of these are heavier and will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) because of their increased weight for transportation and manufacturing processes. So, net-net, we may have fewer plastic bags, but we have created a larger environmental issue with increased GHG.

In a sense, that’s unsurprising. We are at an early stage, but regulation would do well to keep in mind certain realities.

First, it’s clear that the need for plastics will remain across a wide range of industries for the foreseeable future. They may be reduced, but they will not be eliminated. For food and beverages, they both protect and preserve in a way not currently replicable by other materials. For example, plastics stop perishables like milk from degrading due to ultraviolet light and flexible plastics maintain food’s integrity and often nutrition as it travels across global supply chains.

In fact, such plastics play an important role in protecting the environment by massively reducing food spoilage and extending shelf life to reduce carbon footprints and food waste. They are also lighter weight than alternatives (reducing packaging mass and greenhouse gas emissions in transport).

For the same reason, the rising adoption of electric vehicles — crucial to meet environmental goals — is likely to mean increased demand for plastics, given that plastics are often preferred over metal for such vehicles to keep weight (and the required power) down.

Likewise, pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals require plastic films, rigid caps, and covers to keep medical devices and medications sanitary and safe for patient use. For a range of less obvious goods — whether electronics, machinery, or equipment — plastic packaging prevents damage during transport and delivery.

New packaging materials may well emerge, but it will take time for equipment to adapt, new suppliers to be found, and new materials tested to ensure they will protect and preserve end products. We have learned too often in the past that a rush to adopt alternative solutions (such as the shift from incandescent to mercury containing compact fluorescent lights) can create problems of its own.

We need to accept that change takes time.

Reducing plastic waste is a mixed bag of challenges and solutions.

An obvious consequence is that recycling will play a major role if targets are to be met, as recognized in the EU’s PPWR. Reducing demand for plastics is only part of the equation. There also needs to be the

  • Enhancement and expansion of waste collection and recycling globally
  • Investment in consumers’ understanding of recycling and proper material preparation
  • Advancement and introduction of additional technologies to capture and recycle those plastics that are economically necessary but hard to recycle.

The problem is that, even where plastics are recycled, only a small portion are successfully repurposed, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). That’s because regulations restrict the recycled plastic content used for packaging (such as food, medicines and so on) or require sterilization or decontamination. As a result, the majority of uses for packaging require new, virgin plastic created from non-renewable sources or advanced chemical recycling that can produce virgin-like plastic.

Crucially, traditional mechanical recycling recycles less than 10% of plastic waste, and because plastic properties degrade in the process, the material is often downcycled. Many materials are simply not suitable for mechanical recycling infrastructures, with collection, sorting, and processing capabilities that are unable to adequately separate different types of plastic waste.

Chemical processes — advanced recycling that breaks plastics down to the molecular level — produce better quality material, work well for drink bottles made of PET, but have not been used extensively for lower quality mixed wastes.

Again, it is early days, and developments in technology will help partially overcome such challenges in time. Digital watermark technology being rolled out in France, for example, could significantly improve the efficacy and efficiency of sorting different types of packaging. But even there, it’s only at the pilot stage, and not all countries have the recycling infrastructure to handle such sophisticated packaging even when it’s theoretically recyclable.

Just as we remain reliant on plastics for the foreseeable future, we must continue dealing with mixed plastic waste.

References

[1] In 2021 California’s overall recycling rate was only 40% – down from the previous year. Of this 40%, approximately 11.8% is recycled plastics, still considered significantly below what is needed for true circularity.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/15/climate/california-plastic-bag-ban.html