The World Needs Plastics to Live Sustainably; and to Live Sustainably, We Must End Plastic Waste
Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a new report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution.” The American Chemistry Council (ACC) welcomed the report and looks forward to working with the report’s authors and sponsors on solutions to help end waste.
Plastic waste in the environment, including in our oceans and waterways, is a significant, urgent problem. Yet, importantly, we believe it is solvable. Eliminating plastic waste will require a global transition to a circular economy where plastic material used today is recycled and reused again tomorrow. And building a more circular economy for plastics will require both upstream and downstream solutions.
Support for “Breaking the Plastics Wave”
In its report, Pew recommends investing to significantly expand our recycling infrastructure globally, and we strongly agree. According to the United Nations, between 2010 and 2018, 2 billion people globally were without waste collection services, and 3 billion people lacked access to controlled waste disposal facilities. As a result, plastic waste (and waste in general) was, and continues to be, mismanaged, finding its way into the environment, through open dumping, open burning, and disposal in waterways.
In response to this type of leakage, plastic makers and many others – brand owners, packaging manufacturers, recyclers, and NGOs – created the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Together, the Alliance and its nearly 50 members have committed to invest $1.5 billion over five years toward solutions that will prevent leakage, as well as to recover and create value from used plastics. Alliance investments, which are intended to spark additional financing, are focusing on rapidly developing countries that account for nearly 60% of the waste entering the ocean.
Additionally, plastic makers support the report’s recommendations to develop and expand plastic-to-plastic conversion technologies (i.e., advanced recycling), and we support many of the report’s other 2040 targets such as:
- doubling mechanical recycling capacity globally,
- scaling-up collection rates in middle- and low-income countries,
- reducing waste exports into countries with low collection and high leakage rates, and
- reducing microplastic leakage through known solutions to key sources.
Working Upstream and Downstream
In 2018, America’s plastic makers set a goal for all plastic packaging used in the United States to be recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and to be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040. We are already working to grow technologies, increase recycling infrastructure, develop new uses for recovered plastics, and pursue innovative solutions to reduce plastics in the environment. Nearly $5 billion in private-sector investments has been announced in the last three years to help modernize plastics recycling infrastructure and expand the types and volumes of plastics that can be reused and incorporated into a more circular economy.
We are also working upstream to help eliminate unnecessary packaging. For example, many plastic makers are working with their customers to design and develop new packages and packaging formats that use plastics more efficiently, generate less waste, and are easier to recycle.
Where We Urge Caution…
Although we strongly support the majority of Pew’s recommendations, there are important areas where we differ. For example, the report suggests that replacing some plastics with alternatives and reducing production of plastics could help solve the waste problem. The data, however, tell a very different story. According to a report prepared by Trucost, replacing plastics in packaging and consumer products with alternative materials could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold by significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and waste. And other life cycle studies show that replacing plastics in packaging with alternatives would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions.
We urge decision makers to carefully evaluate these and other data along with environmental trade-offs that would likely come with wide-ranging material substitutions. Effective and responsible solutions to end plastic waste should seek to maintain the societal benefits of plastics while ending plastic waste in the environment and minimizing overall environmental impacts. These solutions will need to emphasize ongoing commitments, collaboration, innovation, and investment.
The report also suggests there is no cost associated with banning or redesigning plastics. Banning plastics would increase costs in multiple ways. Take food waste, for example. Numerous studies have shown plastic packaging dramatically reduces food waste. And the UN estimates one-third of all food globally is lost or wasted and that if food waste were a country, it would be third largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions.
We Need Plastics, and We Need to End Plastic Waste
In many parts of the world, rapidly developing economies are raising people out of poverty and into the middle class. These growing populations increasingly rely on plastics to create access to better medical and personal care, safer food and water, energy-efficient homes and vehicles, electronics, and a broad array of consumer goods to live a better life. Plastics help improve hygiene, nutrition, and living standards around the world. And lightweight plastics are inherently very efficient materials, often enabling us to do more with less material, compared to alternatives.
With the world’s population expected to grow 23% to reach 10 billion people by 2050, we need plastics to help people live better while reducing our environmental footprint. And to do this, we must eliminate plastic waste.
We appreciate the work done by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the report’s authors to present potential solutions to address this critical issue. We look forward to continuing our work toward an environment free of plastic waste.