As the host for the COP26 this November, the UK is in the spotlight when it comes to reducing emissions. Plastic production and consumption is an important contributor to climate change, business models that are cutting back on single-use plastic offer important lessons, and inspiration, to drive an agenda that moves towards a circular economy. These are also timely inputs to the discussion on the Environment Bill, which includes several measures to tackle plastic pollution. In this blog Mariel Vilella looks at how businesses reduce their plastic waste and work towards circular economy principles.
- With increased public awareness about the impacts from plastic pollution, the transition towards a zero waste circular economy, where production and use of single-use disposable products is limited to the bare minimum, is ongoing and growing.
- Plastic-free businesses prove to be highly transformative and are bringing innovation to the sustainability agenda – this growing trend is to be supported and scaled up to ensure it is accessible, affordable and convenient for the majority of the population.
- Ultimately, there is a need to reverse the ever-increasing trend in plastic production and use, and setting global limits for virgin plastic production, following a peak in packaging and other single-use, disposable plastics.
- In the UK, the Environment Bill needs to set targets for single-use plastic reduction, ban all plastic waste exports, increase reuse, reduction and recyclability of packaging through new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements, implement an all-in deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers and enable the introduction of reusable and refillable systems for beverage packaging, improve the recycling collection systems for business and households and introduce a moratorium on the construction of new incineration capacity in the UK.
Plastic waste can be described as a persistent problem: it is complex, long-term, and systemic. Single-use plastic (SUP) packaging is often found to be the most littered type of plastic waste, and proposals for solutions have focused on this product. Its impact on climate change is critical. The extraction of fossil fuels, as well as the production of plastic and its disposal in incinerators, are highly polluting processes. By 2050, the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production could reach over 56 gigatons – 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget.
Vulnerable communities disproportionately bear the consequences of environmental degradation and the impact on wellbeing and health caused by plastic pollution, from production to its end-of-life. In particular, women have a higher exposure to plastics in household and feminine hygiene products, which in a context of gender inequalities places women at high risk of miscarriages and cancer, and further gender-related disparities.
Plastic and policy
The responses to the plastic waste crisis have varied. Legislation to move away from disposable plastics and disposable products, as well as to address overpackaging, has been developed across the globe with varying degrees of success — and its development is still ongoing. The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide found that at least 35 jurisdictions have banned the manufacturing of at least some plastic products.
In Europe, the EU adopted a European strategy for plastics in January 2018. This strategy is part of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, and it aims to reduce plastic waste with strategies, amongst others – such as ensuring that by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner. As part of the EU Plastic Strategy, the Single-Use Plastic Directive bans SUP cutlery and plates from July 2021.
The UK, as a non-EU member, is not obliged to apply this legislation except for some specific items in Northern Ireland. Still since October 2020, the ban on supplying plastic straws and stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds has come into force in England. The Environment Bill will discuss deposit return schemes for drinks containers, to encourage more recyclable packaging through extended producer responsibility , and to make it easier for ministers to place charges on other single-use plastic items.
Plastic and business
In business, many of the world’s leading companies are pledging to do better. Some pioneering start-ups are already delivering concrete change and showing there is a growing zero waste customer base. The private sector has seen the emergence of new business models transforming their production and consumption models to replace single-use packaging items and packaging in general. Businesses that make reduced SUP use a key element of their business proposition have flourished and become very popular.
These new types of businesses respond to the increased general public awareness of the impact of plastic waste, which has contributed to the emergence of lifestyle choices based on zero waste principles – without the use of SUP and other single-use products. In Europe, the packaging free shop sector is growing strongly, with an increasing number of shops, jobs, and sales turnover achieved over the past 5-10 years. Long-term forecasts, whilst speculative, present a mid-estimate EU market for bulk goods of €1.2 billion in 2030, with its best case potential being significantly greater.
Plastic in the Global South
While most of the media and research attention is given to reusable options in the Global North, there is a lack of attention towards initiatives in the Global South. In Southeast Asia, the zero waste trend is growing as are finding solutions that can play a critical role in responding to SUP production and trade. Southeast Asia is the global area most negatively impacted by recent changes in the global plastic waste trade flows, including UK’s illegal exports of plastic waste, so the need to tackle the plastic waste crisis and create innovative zero waste solutions is crucial.
In this context, zero waste and plastic-free businesses in Southeast Asia are an important emerging trend. The sample of Southeast Asian plastic-free businesses studied in the report ‘New Business Models Cutting Back on Single-Use Plastic’ show they are highly transformative, adopting a broad conception of value, with high priority given to ecological and social values within a long-term perspective, ensuring profit at the present time but creating value for the future.
The solutions to replace SUP, such as packaging-free or refillables businesses, have reinvented the model of traditional food purchase that was reliant on SUP packaging. The redesign of specific products, like reusable sanitary pads, show the novelty of these new initiatives. The sample of case studies discussed in this report show that this is a growing trend which has overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, proving their resilience and long-term projection.
Recommendations for policymakers
The continuous growth of the zero waste and plastic free businesses shows that the transition to reusable plastic is active and growing. To continue to move forward the following recommendations must be considered.
Firstly, solutions to plastic waste must consider a joined-up, inclusive and multidimensional approach to plastic governance that includes lessons and learnings from the Global South in addition to western policies. From a systemic point of view, it is clear that single-solution techno-enthusiastic strategies or increased waste management capacity alone cannot stop plastic pollution. Solutions to plastic waste should give special consideration to issues around social justice and environmental health, challenging Western-biased conceptions of sustainability and recognising the contributions from communities in the Global South to address environmental problems.
Secondly, the ever-increasing trend in plastic production and use needs to be reversed and reduced, which requires the transformation of the SUP status-quo into a zero waste circular economy. Production and use of single-use disposable products should be limited to the minimum. It is necessary to set global and domestic limits for virgin plastic production and to limit the use of unnecessary. This should run in parallel to measures enabling the introduction of reusable and refillable systems for single use plastic, including support for zero waste, plastic or packaging-free, reusable products. Businesses should be further developed and scaled up within a supportive network in the supply chain to ensure accessibility to the wider population and affordability.
In the UK, the Environment Bill should ban all plastic exports, including to OECD countries, and improve the recycling collection systems for business and households to maximize material recovery, along with implementation an all-in deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, and introducing a moratorium on the construction of new incineration capacity in the UK.
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