Environment

Without plastics, developing countries would face further challenges

A new report released by the Minderoo Foundation repeats generalities and falsehoods about single-use plastics while ignoring the benefits of plastics and technologies crucial to creating a circular economy.

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The United States is one of the largest manufacturing powerhouses in the world thanks in large part to the plastics industry, which is responsible for over one million jobs and over $430 billion in shipments of plastics products annually. With a sector this large, and growing, the plastics industry is incredibly conscious of its products and their life-cycle.

For decades, industry has invested in innovations and advanced solutions to increase recycling rates and ensure that all plastics stay in the economy and out of the environment. A report recently released by the Australian Minderoo Foundation claims to “examine the source of the single-use plastics crisis” but fails to consider the efforts made to combat global waste challenges and the critical role plastics must play in improving environmental outcomes.

This report makes its aims clear from the beginning: to end the production of single-use plastics from virgin resin. In its stated purpose, the report is not impartial or unbiased, and it relies on modeling data to calculate how much plastic waste the plastic industry produces. In its attempts to attack the plastics industry, the report turns a blind eye to the many benefits of plastics and the technologies that are crucial to creating a global circular economy.

Here’s how the recent report misses the mark:

U.S. industry is critical to making improvements in global waste management

Though the report levels attacks at industry over plastic waste, it fails to mention the number of industry partnerships and collaborations that have enhanced waste management and recycling systems both in the United States and throughout the developing world to ensure that no plastic is thrown away. Just in late 2020, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation announced a $2.5 billion Ocean Plastics Initiative aimed at improving infrastructure to reduce plastic waste in oceans and waterways. This fund focuses on developing countries, where lack of regulations and weak waste and recycling systems let close to 90% of plastics leak into the environment each year.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, comprised of nearly 50 major global companies, has committed more than $1 billion with the goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years in developing countries to deploy scaled solutions that better manage plastics and increase recycling rates. These are the solutions we need to ensure that no piece of plastic ends up in the environment.

Plastics are vital to the developing world

The report also ignores how plastics’ versatility helps the developing world gain access to better and longer-lasting food products, offers cheaper and more durable building materials, and reduces emissions to help reach clean energy goals. In addition, plastics are a more affordable, lighter alternative to traditional materials like glass and metal, making them more financially accessible for those living on a budget and lighter to transport between purchase location and home for those who live further away from city centers.

With collaboration and investment, industry will continue to work to create better recycling and waste systems in the developing world. However, finger pointing and blaming a single entity for the whole of a global problem is not a solution.

Alternatives to plastics are less sustainable

The report posits that the “focus needs to be on producing recycled polymers from plastic waste, on re-use and on alternative substitute materials.” Of note, industry has already made strides to encourage and invest in the reuse and recycling of plastics products to ensure a circular economy is within reach. However, any suggestion that common plastics substitutes like paper, glass, and aluminum are better for the environment is false. In fact, replacing single-use plastics with alternative packaging would result in environmental costs four times greater than currently exist.

According to an October 2020 report by Shelie Miller, Director of the Program in the Environment for the University of Michigan, reusable alternatives actually require more material than single-use options and generally use more energy to produce. Reusable products are rarely reused enough to offset the environmental impact created by the additional materials and energy required to make them.

U.S. companies take responsibility for plastics products

While the United States is home to a robust plastics manufacturing sector, many neglect to remember  the competitive recycling and recovery rate of post-consumer materials in North America. In the United States, less than 3% of plastic is mismanaged. In Canada, that number is only 1%. This is due to complex and responsible waste management and recycling systems that ensure that all plastic stays out of our waterways and environment.

Unfortunately, this is not true for all plastics producers. In countries that lack the infrastructure and policies needed to properly manage plastics, like China and Saudi Arabia, products are more likely to end up in the environment. Recovery rates in Asia, for example, are inverted to those in North America. According to a report by the United Nations, the largest ten rivers in Asia are responsible for 90% of global plastic waste flows entering the ocean. The lack of infrastructure and policies to ensure that plastics can be recovered and reused are to blame for this.

Not all policies are created equal

The Minderoo report also calls for further regulations and policies against the plastics industry, while simultaneously applauding advanced recycling investments which the plastics industry has made in order to increase recycling rates and ensure that all plastics are able to be recycled.

What the report ignores is that there are already two pieces of legislation—the Break Free From Plastic Pollution and CLEAN Future Acts—which attempt to regulate the industry in a harmful way. Both acts call for a moratorium on permits for new plastics production and for new advanced recycling facilities.

As the globe moves forward to tackle the plastic waste challenge, it is important that policies are matched with action and ensure that a thriving manufacturing sector may continue to develop. In the United States, industry is already stepping up to ensure that products never end up in the environment. These efforts are also being exported abroad where strong policy frameworks do not exist. To support these efforts, policymakers should focus on legislation that provides a space for innovation and advancement in new recycling technologies.

The blame game has already been proven ineffective. What we need is real, actionable change that brings together all stakeholders –industry, governments, and non-profit organizations alike – to work together to solve plastic waste challenges, without sacrificing jobs or trade.

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