Plastics and the Circular Economy: How we can reduce our impact

Tuesday, June 09 2020

Plastic is a brilliant packaging material - light, low cost, adaptable and good barrier properties. But the way it is used by consumers and companies is causing significant harm to the marine environment.

Use of plastic is increasing and unless we change our current approach to managing plastic waste, plastic could account for more weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Here in the Sustainability and Climate Change team at PwC, we help offer solutions to businesses to help reduce their plastic footprint and unlock value from sustainable practices.

The Plastic Problem

The production of plastic is forecasted to continually grow, with estimations of 1,124 million tonnes (mt) of plastic to be produced in 2050, compared to 311 mt in 2014. The production of plastics accounts for 6% of global oil consumption (the same as aviation) rising to 20% by 2050.

It is estimated that more than 12 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year and this figure is set to quadruple by 2050 if no action is taken. Plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade in the marine environment, and has been found to negatively impact the health of marine ecosystems.

Consumers are Demanding Change

Programmes such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II have contributed to rising consumer awareness surrounding the plastics problem. Social media mentions and google searches around the plastic problem are growing exponentially as people are demanding change. In February 2018, approximately 250k tweets mentioned plastic waste compared to around 75k in January 2017. This has led to consumer outcry for companies to reduce their use of plastic and to tackle this issue.

Rising Legislation and Guidance

The UK Government Strategy includes the banning of certain uses of plastic, taxes on single-use plastic and deposit return schemes. Other countries are taking action with China and Malaysia banning the import of low value mixed plastics for recycling. The Indian government has pledged to ban all single-use plastics by 2022.

The EU also has a programme for taking action on plastics and developing a more circular economy, including R&D investment for new recyclable materials in order to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and make recycling profitable for businesses.

Examples of Innovative Alternatives to Plastic:

Refillables

Refillables would require customers to use product packaging more than once with the aim to eliminate single-use packaging.

Create product lines where packaging is removed entirely so that containers can be refilled.

Bag deposit return scheme

Create a deposit return scheme for bags where customers pay a £1 deposit for a reusable bag.

Social plastic

The goal of social plastic is to monetise plastic- turning it into a source of income for less privileged people.

Reduces plastics and addresses marine plastic waste in the least developed countries.

 

  • Wholefoods, Ecover and Body shop have all experimented with these options in the past.
  • This can pose significant operational challenges for some retailers.
  • Biodegradable wrappers are another package free alternative such as edible water pods or compostable bags e.g. Co-op

 

 

  • Create a recognisable bag that is reusable.
  • Charge £1 a bag, refundable in any store.
  • Made from a single polymer for recycling at the end of its life

 

 

  • Plastic bank is a radical approach to incentivise economically excluded people.
  • Plastic waste is collected and exchanged for money or services.
  • Shopkeepers can return the plastic at a premium for recycling into products with companies such as Henkel.

 

Our View on Plastics

  1. Plastics will be subject to much more regulation. This will include restrictions on the use of the material an increasing costs on producers for the management of waste.
  2. Consumers are confused as to the best choices for materials. They do not currently distinguish between good plastic and bad plastic.
  3. Alternatives also have problems. Card often has to be laminated with plastic to function in food applications. There is confusion between compostable bags and biodegradable bags, and uncertainty that the current standards are effective.
  4. Recycled content is a double win - lower impact and reduce waste and pollution but current infrastructure does not generate sufficient recycling to meet demand.