PLASTIC PRODUCTION | Making Plastics Greener: Regulation or Choice

By now, most of us are aware that plastics are an environmental hot button issue. We are seeing progress in our areas to ban single use items like plastic bags and straws, which we are super jazzed about. We encourage everyone to use less plastic where they can, consume less, and in general decrease demand for plastic items that could be made out of an alternate, more sustainable material. And we genuinely hope this makes a difference for the planet. 

We have to imagine though, that these shifts create a ripple effect for the people on the other end of the supply chain. The affect our movement towards sustainable lifestyles will have on the plastics industry is probably akin to what the same movement is/has been having on the energy sector, as we move towards renewable energy sources. There are two very opposing sides to these kinds of debates, usually sustainability vs economy, and neither is likely to back down. More and more, we see the clashes that these controversial topics cause erupt in politics and policy, and the directions big businesses are taking. We do sympathize with the other side. We know that when interest in the products you have provided for decades wanes or becomes heavily regulated, it isn't as easy as flipping a switch and investing all your profits into a different sector to find new success. But, we can hope that some companies at least, will see the opportunity in evolving towards better, cleaner options for energy and plastic production, and chose to take their operations there.

What it usually comes down to, is that unless the people in C-level positions are willing to make a change, or they feel enough pressure from consumers/stakeholders to make that change, they need to be legally regulated to force a shift. So, what does that landscape look like right now? Let's take a look at a few factors.

Government

Wouldn't it be great if we could have globally regulated policies on material production and waste management? Gives you a bit of a headache just imaging that many countries coordinating, eh? (Maybe some day!) However, with commitments like the Paris Agreement, that kind of widespread change actually may be possible, if everyone stays on board. The Paris Agreement focuses on Climate Change as a whole, and it is so positive to have nearly 200 parties making efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. There have been other recent national and international assertions that concentrate on plastics and their impact.

In 2018, the G7 introduced the Ocean Plastics Charter, which it appears Canada had a big hand in putting together. The first few paragraphs outline what the charter is about.

"Plastics are one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past century and play an important role in our economy and daily lives. However, the current approach to producing, using, managing and disposing of plastics poses a significant threat to the environment, to livelihoods and potentially to human health. It also represents a significant loss of value, resources and energy.

We, the Leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, commit to move toward a more resource-efficient and sustainable approach to the management of plastics. We resolve to take a lifecycle approach to plastics stewardship on land and at sea, which aims to avoid unnecessary use of plastics and prevent waste, and to ensure that plastics are designed for recovery, reuse, recycling and end-of-life management to prevent waste through various policy measures." - G7 Ocean Plastics Charter

This charter outlines steps like:

  • Working with industry towards 100% reusable, recyclable, or, where viable alternatives do not exist, recoverable, plastics by 2030.
  • Increasing domestic capacity to manage plastics as a resource, prevent their leakage into the marine environment from all sources, and enable their collection, reuse, recycling, recovery and/or environmentally-sound disposal.
  • Encouraging campaigns on marine litter in G7 countries with youth and relevant partners to raise public awareness, collect data and remove debris from coasts and shorelines globally.

The full document succinctly summarizes their intentions with timelines for these initiatives, with a number of points focusing on the prevention and reclamation of marine litter (yay!). As this is a relatively new plan, we've yet to see what the measurable effects will be, but we can't debate that having this international commitment in place, even from a handful of countries, is exciting. 

Nationally, Canada is working across provinces & territories to make progress at home. In November 2018, Canadian environment ministers met and agreed to work together towards a Canada-wide strategy on zero plastic waste

"The Strategy outlines areas where changes are needed across the plastic lifecycle, from design to collection, clean-up and value recovery, and underscores the economic and business opportunities resulting from long-lasting and durable plastics." - CCME

This strategy touches on Canada's international and national commitments, it's movement towards a circular economy, and the ten areas they have identified to pursue action for results. Reaching a national zero-plastic waste output and reducing marine litter are the end goals of this strategy. 

These few regulatory plans address the environmental and economic implications of the plastic industry, as they should. It is a Government's responsibility to consider the economics of the policies they put forth. And, if by regulating the plastics industry we are able to recycle plastics in sustainable ways that generate millions of dollars for our national economy, and create jobs, that is a pretty decent outcome (key word being able!).

We're not sure what momentum has built behind these initiatives, but at the least, the fact that they exist is encouraging. And despite knowing that the work has barely started, we look forward to seeing if this work can contribute to making the shift we really need to reach the targets science shows us we need to achieve. 

Industry

The people and companies who produce plastic, they can't think it's all bad, right (unless they really are only in it for the bottom line)? They must believe in what they are doing, at least to some extent. However, they depend on this industry for their income, so it is in their best interest to focus on all the positives. 

If you look, you can find a number of articles touting the many uses of plastics. Plastics Make It Possible is a website that seems to lobby for all the good things that plastics have done for our world. There are dozens of articles and links. But how do we know who is writing, funding, and hosting this information? If you scroll to the bottom you see it is credited to the American Chemistry Council with the tag "America's Plastic Makers." Probably not a totally unbiased source. 

Or take the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). They work as advocates for the plastic industry, and by all appearances, try their best to lobby for the positive uses of plastics, which we can't argue, do exist. And discuss what is being done to prevent plastic waste.

"CPIA is committed to the principle that plastics do not belong in the world’s waterways and oceans and should not be littered – plastics should be responsibly used, reused, recycled and finally recovered for their energy value." - plastics.ca

They do have some positive initiatives listed on their website, which is encouraging. Like Operation Clean Sweep, "...an international program designed to prevent pellet, flake and powder loss and the potential introduction of pellets to the marine environment where they create both a litter problem and a threat to sea life and wild life." There are economic and social benefits to the participating factories, as well as the good publicity they will receive by being a member, so there are decent incentives for them to be a part of it.

It is great to see that these initiatives exist, but we have to wonder, if they are voluntary, how effective is it? Where are the metrics showing what reduction of impact this is having? They do list their participating partners, and there are many. But they are probably a fraction of the companies worldwide who we need to get on board with zero-waste, zero-pollution commitments.

This could be a form of green-washing in a way, especially since the organizers work in the plastic industry so they certainly want all the positives discussed, even if they don't have actual number behind them. We're not sure. You really do have to question everything you read, especially the source. 

Even with these initiatives, this is our dilemma still: The plastics that are produced are not (all) being done in the best ways possible. And by that we mean that there are 1,000s of items produced with a one-time use in mind (the worst!); producers are actively choosing not to use the "best" (read: least toxic, recyclable) plastics available; and they are not making efforts to see their products all the way through their life cycle. Are some companies making efforts to do these things? Absolutely, and more. They are putting efforts into R&D that is making strides in bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and other advancements. And that is awesome. But when it comes to landfill waste and marine litter, it kind of needs to be an all hands buy-in situation.

"When you consider that most plastics can be recycled 7-9 times, the practice of creating products that are unrecyclable by design is both wasteful and silly."www.kimointernational.org

This article titled "Can Plastic Manufacturing Be Environmentally Friendly?" gives perspective for plastic producers on how they can tackle these issues by implementing a "...supply chain approach." They give examples of 3 innovative things that are currently being done to lengthen the useful life of plastics, and they ask a simple question:

"Plastics have made so many cutting edge inventions possible-couldn’t there be a way to make plastics greener?" - www.craftechind.com

Isn't that what we all want to know? There must be a way!

The big players in the plastics industry may not always have the planet's best interest's at heart, but there are at least factions that care. And with pressure from board members, investors, and consumers, hopefully they will choose to push ahead of policy, and chose the most sustainable production practices possible.

NGOs + Other Bodies

There are tonnes of organizations that are focusing on our plastic problems right now. So much so that we will be taking a look at a few doing work with ocean plastics more in depth soon. For now, we will say that the work these organizations are doing is so important. They may not be able to pass regulations themselves, but the more they are out there doing the work and talking about it, the more lobbying power they garner that they can leverage to support good policies and provide unbiased, independent information. (More on that later!)

This barely scratches the surface of what is happening out there. This is a very big and very complex conversation. It's not that we want to pick on plastics, it just hurts to know that so much of what is created ends up in landfills, and pollutes our oceans and natural landscapes. 91% of plastics produced are not recycled. That is an unfathomable amount. 

Yes, there are many industries that depend on plastics; they have revolutionized our way of life. You may say that modern society needs them. However, we are presented every day with opportunities to use less, and we need to take them. We need to not become complacent about the items we purchase and speak up about things that could be changed.

And for those options that we can't find something better for, what we want to see is everyone producing and using them better; committing to a circular economy with zero-waste and being responsible. It has to be possible. Based on what plastic waste is doing to our oceans and our Earth, we don't have a choice.

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