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EU Strategy on Plastics: The Promise and the Pitfalls

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Last week the European Commission published its much-anticipated Plastics Strategy, as part of the Circular Economy Package. It is being hailed as major news. Is it really? Yes and no. No, because it actually does not come with any new legislative initiatives. It announces some, but several were already in the pipeline, others remain to be assessed and others still will be very tough to see through, e.g. Commissioner Oettinger’s plan for an EU plastics tax. At the same time, it is real news, for one main reason: it exposes a fundamental dichotomy in current thinking and promises to shift the debate in a direction that will be challenging for industry.

The dichotomy in question is “resource-efficiency vs. circularity”. Policies and industrial strategies aimed at resource-efficiency are essentially based on life-cycle analysis: we seek to design and manufacture a given product so that we minimise resource use in the process, while delivering the product functionalities we desire. If we prioritise circularity instead, we seek to design the product with a closed-loop system in mind: our chief consideration is to avoid waste. Avoiding waste is not necessarily synonymous with resource optimisation: from a life-cycle analysis perspective, our “circular economy” product will not necessarily be more-resource efficient than our “linear economy product”. Take as a simple example a non-recyclable plastic cup vs. a recyclable paper-based cup. Whether in this instance plastic or paper is the more resource-efficient solution will depend – in addition to the specific design of the cup – on a number of factors: e.g. What amount of energy will be needed to produce each cup? What are the costs (economic and environmental) of disposal and incineration of the plastic cup vs. the cost of separate collection and recycling of the paper cup? How much energy can be recovered from incineration vs. energy savings from recycling?

 

Life-cycle analysis can give us answers to these kinds of questions, and this allows us to use it to guide evidence-based, rational material and design choices and policy approaches. Or at least on the surface. For life-cycle-analysis has two fundamental limitations. Firstly, exact quantification of impact often depends to such a degree on circumstantial factors that it works much better on a specific case-by-case basis than as a general policy tool. Secondly, it can only account for those aspects of the life cycle that are quantifiable – and many environmental externalities are not. A case in point is the environmental cost of marine litter. Given the scale of this particular problem, this alone is a severe limitation. The circular economy promises a different approach. If our thinking factors in and gives a high priority to these externalities, then our material, design and policy choices may be quite different. Herein lies the promise, but also the main potential pitfall of the circular economy: it allows us to take a more holistic approach, but at the same time the importance that we attribute to factors that are not scientifically quantifiable involves a value judgement – this drives us away from “evidence-based” policy and more into the realm of political choices.

 

All this is not exactly news either: it took around thirty years for the circular economy concept to make it out of academic papers and into an EU policy, and there has been much debate about it since. But what is new in the Plastics Strategy is that it really brings the Circular Economy concept to life, by applying it to a material that is so economically important and so pervasive in our lives. It highlights that the choice that is objectively the most rational from a resource-efficiency perspective is not necessarily the most desirable. This becomes particularly evident in the discussion about “single use” plastics, where broader environmental considerations, e.g. marine pollution, may well override resource-efficiency.

 

The reality is that marine litter would not be such a big problem if our waste collection and treatment infrastructures were better; if we did not ship our waste to the other side of the world; if we had better waste water treatment facilities, etc. Large-scale infrastructure investments in waste systems and better enforcement of existing laws would undoubtedly have the biggest positive environmental impact. The Plastics Strategy does make a number of interesting proposals in this regard. Economic operators are also responding with a marked acceleration in their commitments, especially in terms of increasing the use of recyclable and recycled materials.

 

What industry will struggle more with is the question of how to preserve the functionality of products and packaging in a highly competitive consumer economy, while not only improving recyclability and recycling rates, but at the same time reducing both the quantity and the types of materials used. To go one step further: today, preserving “functionality” is a given, but the question for tomorrow is how to reinvent functionality itself, having first incorporated a circular economy approach at the product ideation stage. This will be the most interesting aspect of this debate in the future.

 

In the meantime, whether the Plastics Strategy delivers or fails, at least the EU will have inched slightly closer to the hearts of European citizens, at least those who care to watch Blue Planet – while munching on their plastic-encased ready-meal or savouring their pre-washed-and-bagged quinoa and avocado salad. That in itself is part of the Gordian Knot that is yet to be sliced.