By John Duncan, coordinator of WWF International’s No Plastics in Nature Initiative.
Are you interested in this topic? Join our Circular Plastics Event at the WWF Switzerland offices on Thursday, January 23rd, 2020.
Plastic, in some form or other, is now an inescapable part of our daily lives. In particular, its ability to extend product shelf life and reduce transport costs have made plastic one of the most ubiquitous packaging materials in use today. Despite global efforts to improve plastic recycling, most plastic packaging value chains remain locked in linear ‘take, make and waste’ cycles, with the large majority of plastic packaging waste ending up in landfills or leaking out into the environment and only 14% collected globally for recycling.
While Switzerland prides itself on high levels of recycling for many materials, plastic is not one of them. Although the collection rate for PET bottles in Switzerland is one of the highest in the world at above 80%, this only makes up a relatively small fraction of the estimated 100kg of plastic waste generated per capita in Switzerland, the large majority (75%) of plastic packaging waste is incinerated in waste-to-energy plants.
When looking at the “recyclable” logos in use on most plastic packaging in Switzerland, a consumer might be forgiven for thinking that a lot more of their plastic packaging is being recycled. While technically almost any type of plastic can be recycled, the processes become increasingly expensive and complicated, particularly if the plastics are contaminated or are made of mixed materials. With limited market demand for recycled plastic material and a relatively low oil price, there is little incentive to develop better plastic collection and recycling systems and in many cases it is simply cheaper to use virgin plastic than attempting to reuse or recycle plastic that is already in existence.
While Switzerland’s highly efficient waste collection and management system prevents most plastic waste from leaking into the ocean, incinerating fossil fuels (in the form of plastic) to supply our energy needs can hardly be considered a circular solution to this complex problem. A circular economy requires the decoupling of economic growth from increasing resource use, when it comes to plastics, circular principles suggest that we need to be designing plastics to ensure that they can be reused, shared and/or repurposed and only then recycled. And if they can’t, then they probably shouldn’t be used at all.
Amidst a growing outcry from the public around the impacts of plastic pollution and incineration, there is global movement towards a circular plastics economy. Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, over 350 organisations have now signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment which aims to move from single-use to reusable packaging models, ensuring that 100% of plastic packaging in use can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025.
Growing local initiatives
Although Switzerland’s waste incineration system provides limited incentives for the innovation of circular plastic systems, multinational companies such as Nestle have signed up to the global plastics commitment and a number of Swiss companies are starting to rethink their approach to plastic. Migros has recently closed the loop by producing 100% recycled PET bottles, and Coop has switched from plastic to biodegradable cellulose nets for organic onions, lemons oranges as well introducing a number of packaging-free options for other organic vegetables and fruit. As is to be expected, a host of start-ups around the world are also driving interesting circular solutions to this problem, ranging from reusable containers for many of your standard big-brand products to replacing water bottles with edible seaweed-based pouches.
Next Steps / Advice
While these are all small steps in the right direction, without better coordination across the entire plastics value chain, not just locally but globally, the current linear system is unlikely to change. Elsewhere, initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact, which brings together government, businesses, local authorities, citizens and NGOs behind a common set of goals, have started to establish the types of collaborative platforms required to drive this change. As always, these challenges are complex and it is important to be mindful of the bigger environmental picture. Reducing plastic waste only to increase food waste or improving plastic recycling rates at the cost of increased transport/energy emissions is not a circular solution.
The goal is ultimately to create a world where we use only the products that we need and that these products would only be allowed onto the market when there is a circular solution available for consumers to reuse/recycle them after their first-use. A quick look in your rubbish bin will tell you that we are still far from achieving such a goal but the wheels of innovation are starting to turn…