March 29, 2019
A tidal wave of regulations banning single-use plastics is sweeping across the globe. Municipal and national governments alike are implementing laws banning products made from hard-to-recycle flexible plastics, like plastic straws and bags. The EU just passed legislation banning single-use plastics in its member states by 2021.
These regulations don’t necessarily ban all product applications for flexible plastics or address consumption, so we may still have just as many straws and bags but now made from different materials. And perhaps counterintuitively, choosing alternative materials is questionable. Moreover, many products and packaging made from flexible plastics will still be available for consumers to purchase, consume, and dispose. Plastic Bags and straws represent a very modest portion of our single use and flexible plastic packaging. If we aren’t creating more sustainable alternatives or eliminating flexible plastics what is the point of these material bans? A lot of the impetus behind these bans lies in the fact that flexible plastics are not recyclable within municipal systems and they will not be recycled into new uses.
But plastics have many advantages, that’s why packaging and product manufacturers use them in the first place. Plastics are lighter than glass or metal, reducing their carbon footprint during transportation, for example. Flexible plastics packaging for food keeps our food fresher longer, reducing food waste. And plastic film used in agriculture reduces costs, water consumption and pesticide use. Ultimately, it boils down to a question of perspective - rather than looking at the material as the problem, we should be looking at how we manage the material at the end of its life. Flexible plastics may be difficult to recycle, but they are not impossible to recycle. The Hefty Energy Bag initiative - currently in place in Omaha, Nebraska and Boise, Idaho - collects plastic film and multi-layered packaging at the curb, where it is then thermally recycled into energy. There are also options for chemical recycling which help divert waste from ending up in landfills or waterways for use as fuel and raw materials for other products.
Rather than implementing material bans that merely shift sustainability issues from one material to another, the key is investing in technology that is able to turn difficult-to-recycle plastics and build a closed loop system for long term reuse. Integral to a closed loop system is the ability to add value to recycled materials, upcycling them into new and useful applications. Not only does this help eliminate waste streams from entering our landfills and waterways, there is huge economic potential for developing new industries and job growth. In order to unlock all this potential our perspective needs to change from blaming materials to envisioning the sustainability, innovation and economic potential of their long term reuse.