EU Plastics Strategy unwrapped

It is exactly sixty years since the toy hula-hoop, the first mass market application for modern polyethylene, helped to ignite the demand for plastics made from oil. It was affordable, accessible and robust; ideal properties for many things, not just toys. In the intervening years new polymers have been invented and they are widely used for both packaging and durable goods. Recently the European Commission published its new Plastics Strategy, to deal with the growing problem of waste plastic.  

The strategy rightly recognises that the value of waste plastic must be increased to make it commercially worthwhile to collect, sort and process it for recycling.  There is also a strong emphasis on improving design to facilitate recycling.  However there are few details on implementation, other than mentions of standardisation for recycled material and the possibility of companies paying towards recycling facilities.  The Commission seems to be relying on an ‘EU wide pledging campaign’ to tackle plastic waste.

However, for the plastics strategy to bring about real change it must be backed by regulations that are straightforward to implement, rather than pledges. The UK is already going down this path.

Some measures sound attractive but are difficult to put into practice. For example, it is a good idea to design products and packaging that are easy to recycle.  But it is not evident how regulation would be framed to achieve this. Packaging made from only one type of plastic is less complicated to recycle than those containing layers of different plastics, card and aluminium. But for Europe to regulate in favour of ‘simple’ packaging would be contentious. Many multilayer liquid packs, coated plastic lids or sachets and specialist closures would no longer be allowed. Also policy should not favour one type of material over another. The European Aluminium Association rightly commented that although a plastics strategy makes sense “It is fundamental to maintain a level playing field with other competing materials, including metals”. 

It makes more sense to mandate a minimum recycled content for packaging, which is responsible for most waste. Each company putting packaged items on the market would be required to include a minimum recycled content, starting at a low level, across packaging made from plastic, paper, glass and metal. Using recycled material above the minimum could provide a credit against any Producer Responsibility payment. Such a carrot and stick approach would motivate companies to include more recycled content thus increasing the demand for, and the value of recycled materials relative to primary ones. It would encourage recycling of all materials, not just plastic. 

A required recycled content would not in itself bring about changes to design, but as the mandatory recycled content increases over time, the overall cost of packaging will rise. Companies would be motivated to simplify their packaging or change to another material, to avoid a price penalty, which should reduce the demand for multilayer, multi-material packaging. 

It is appropriate that a hula-hoop made from recycled plastic is now available.    With well thought out implementation, the European Plastics Strategy could bring circularity to many more products, without having to wait a further sixty years.

Published: 2 February 18

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