British Plastics Federation director general said he would like to see a tougher stance on littering rather than eradicating the plastics industry entirely
Plastic associations fault recycling and consumer behaviour for pollution
The challenges to reducing plastic production and reversing its pollution of the environment are sizeable.
Even when consumers make the effort, much of the packaging consumed is either difficult or impossible to recycle – such as dark food containers that are not picked up in sorting scans, or plastic-lined paper coffee cups.
Standardising plastics and biodegradable plastics, which currently do not all degrade in the same conditions, will be a pivotal part of making recycling more efficient and profitable.
Convincing manufacturers to remove colours from plastic bottles would help recycling yields but businesses will have to be reassured that they will not see a drop-off in sales as a result.
A blow to Europe’s plans to make recycling pay was the decision by China, the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials, to ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of 2018.
Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s First Vice-President, admitted the decision presented a challenge to the commission but he tried to put a positive spin on the ruling.
“Are we as Europeans not capable of recycling our own waste?” he said in January.
He optimistically suggested that once a few “minor changes” had been made, Europe too could make recycling profitable.
Some have argued that organisations such as the commission have been too slow to react.
In response, Enrico Brivio, the commission’s spokesman for the environment, told The National: “It is important and urgent to act now. Obviously things could always have been done earlier or later.
“But the important thing is we feel this sense of urgency and that’s why we’ve presented such a wide-ranging strategy to tackle several aspects of single-use plastics, microplastics and marine litter.”
Europe’s ambition to create a market for the reuse and recycling of plastics is a stepping stone but shows how far there is yet to go in this project.
The plastics sector in the EU alone employs 1.5 million people and in 2015 generated a turnover of €340 billion (Dh1.55 trillion).
Although few in the plastics industry would deny the seriousness of marine litter, there is concern over the effect the environmentally-friendly projects may have on business and the jobs that rely on those plastics.
The British Plastics Federation is in favour of reducing plastic waste through better recycling and has repeatedly called for reforms to enable more domestic recycling and to be less reliant on exporting its waste overseas.
It has pushed for information campaigns to reduce litter spread by the public and for the government to explore behaviour change campaigns for those who do not recycle.
However, when UK Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her plan to protect the environment by eradicating all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042, the BPF director general Philip Law said that the federation was “very disturbed that the tone of language used in the speech does not recognise the important benefits that the plastics industry brings to the UK, including 170,000 jobs”.
“To stop plastics entering the sea from the West, the plastics industry would like to see a tougher stance on littering,” Mr Law said.
“It should be noted that the types of products that enter the marine environment from the UK tend to be those that have been irresponsibly littered – not packaging materials for fresh produce that are typically consumed at home and then disposed of responsibly.”
As well as lobbying the government for change, the BPF is leading the UK arm of Operation Clean Sweep. This international initiative aims to ensure that the plastic pellets, flakes and powders that pass through manufacturing facilities in the UK do not end up in the water. Those who sign up to Operation Clean Sweep commit to adhere to best practices to prevent the loss of plastic pellets.
Across the Atlantic, Patty Long, executive vice president of America’s Plastics Industry Association, is also fighting to defend plastic while minimising waste.
“Single-use products exist because they meet a specific need. They do a job, they do it well, and they do it affordably for businesses and consumers. The challenge, of course, is disposing of them properly,” she told The National.
“We can all agree that no product should be littered. Whether an item designed to be used once is made of paper, plastic, glass or metal, it should be disposed of correctly, preferably in a way that preserves and extends its value. All of us must think before we toss,” she said.
Ms Long fears that any ban on plastics runs the risk of being a knee-jerk reaction, with negative consequences.
“Investment in waste management and recycling technologies is a more meaningful way to keep products from ending up where they don’t belong,” she said.