June 4, 2018

Europe  usually precedes the US in sustainability laws and regulations. It also seems like the US usually follows suit within 5 years or so of the new regulations being implemented in Europe.

So when the UK launched a 25-year plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, it definitely got our attention. With these new regulations already being implemented by companies, some saying they’ll even eliminate avoidable plastic waste in three years, it will be important for the US to take note of the positives of the plan, the challenges the UK faces, and the solutions to those challenges as the next few years pass.

With these regulations affecting our sister company, Plastique, directly we invited our European marketing manager, Neil Westrope, to provide some background about the new plan, as well as share his thoughts about it.

Are you on track to be compliant if the European plastics legislation is adopted in the US?

By: Neil Westrope, European Marketing Manager 

The UK has committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Under the pledge waste such as the carrier bags, food packaging and disposable plastic straws that litter the country and pollute the seas would be abolished. The broader 25-year plan, first promised three years ago, will also urge supermarkets to set up “plastic-free aisles” for goods with no packaging and confirm plans to extend the 5p (about 7 cents) charge for carrier bags to all English retailers.

It comes as the Government seeks to improve its environmental credentials with recent pledges on animal protection and plastic microbeads.

The anti-plastic lobby in the UK gained significant momentum recently following broadcast of Sir David Attenborough’s TV series Blue Planet II which drew attention to the harm done to creatures that become entangled in plastic or eat fragments that they have mistaken for real food.

With concern growing around plastic waste, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has stated that, “We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals, untreated, into rivers was ever the right thing to do. In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly. In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.”

In addition, the EU plans to make all plastic packaging across Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030. The pledge forms part of a wider plastic strategy to tackle the issue of plastic waste. Other commitments include a reduction in consumption of single-use plastics and restrictions on the use of microplastics, such as microbeads found in some cosmetics.

It is estimated that 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, with research indicating that without urgent action to cut demand, this is likely to be 34 billion tons by 2050.

In the UK alone, during its recent Great British Beach Clean Up, the Marine Conservation Society found 718 pieces of litter for every 100 meter stretch of beach surveyed, and of this, rubbish from food and drink made up at least one fifth.

Dealing with plastics could have two parts: cleaning up what is already in the oceans (an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic) and stopping more from getting in. Marine scientists, however, say the overwhelming priority must be prevention: cutting quickly the flow of those eight million tons every year as much as half of it carried by rivers.

Although there is a role for removing plastics, from low-tech beach clean-ups to a high-tech proposal to extract the plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the pollution is dispersed too widely across the oceans for a large proportion to be removed in this way.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading anti-waste charity, estimates that international clean-ups could not deal with more than 0.5 % of plastics entering the seas. Yes, there are technological clean-up solutions, like big mechanical booms sweeping around in the middle of the ocean, but there is a danger of us being distracted from the priority of stopping plastics getting into the oceans.

That means changing both consumer behavior and product design — to discourage non-essential use of plastics, particularly for packaging, and making it far easier to recycle the plastics that are used. Plastics are not the enemy. They are wonderful materials. What matters is what we choose to do with them. It is not about doing without plastics but doing things differently.

Would the biggest gains not come from compelling manufacturers to design recyclability into their products, transforming the traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) into a “circular economy”? Where packaging is essential, it should be simple and easily identifiable, so that recycling plants with automated sorting machinery do not face a perplexing plethora of different materials mixed or bonded together.