By Rachel Meidl
Fellow in Energy and Environment
The Chinese government recently announced plans to address the growing waste issue by phasing out the use of single-use plastics by 2025 with major cities and certain industries affected by the end of 2020. China produces the largest quantity of plastic waste in the world and accounts for the highest shares of mismanaged plastic waste. This means that plastic waste in China is not formally collected, controlled, and contained in regulated systems and infrastructure and thus has a high risk of leakage and transport to the natural environment and oceans via waterways, winds and tides. Banning will not prevent plastic waste or plastic alternatives from migrating to the ecosystem if there is no mechanism for it to be collected in the first place. Targeting countries with high rates of waste generation and waste mismanagement can be a viable path forward, but only if integrated with scaled technology and infrastructure to collect, sort, process, recycle and recover; a regulatory system that can manage the process; and informed and responsible citizens. In China’s case, banning is a premature effort and puts the cart before the horse.
A fundamental problem of the escalating plastic waste dilemma is that society is approaching it as a product-based solution, rather than a system-based solution. Simply banning a product and encouraging the use of understudied alternative products that have unintended and unquantified environmental, social and economic impacts throughout its life cycle is not enough. After all, we want to ensure we are supplementing or replacing plastics with materials that are safe for the environment, people and the economy and do not exacerbate the global waste problem. A longer-term, sustainable solution is investing in R&D to engineer higher quality polymers with end-of-life management in mind; technology and solid waste systems that manage a wide array of plastic polymers on the market mechanically as well as chemically, including biodegradable or compostable biopolymers; consumer education to increase awareness; and cooperative mechanisms throughout the supply chain. All of this requires the underpinning of an informed and balanced regulatory framework that keeps pace with technologies across the life cycle, accounts for impacts along the supply chain, and encourages innovation. Banning plastics prior to understanding and embarking upon these critical elements sets the system up for failure and takes us further away from achieving sustainability and global circularity goals.
Bans and partial bans serve a purpose and can be warranted, especially when a chemical or product poses unnecessary risk to public health or the environment such as lead paint, polychloride biphenyls and asbestos. Bans also demonstrate public engagement and political awareness of social and environmental issues that stimulate robust dialogue. They reinforce our civic rights and values in the democratic system. These are all great things. However, bans also need to be informed by data and science that is methodical, collaborative and practical so it does not disincentivize and stifle innovation to create better alternatives, technologies and infrastructure — or convey the illusion that this singular action solves or substantially reduces the plastic pollution problem. Prohibitions are not the only avenue to tackle the plastic waste issue. There are many pathways to consider outside of command-and-control methodologies. Market-based arrangements in the form of taxes, charges, subsidies, deposit-refund systems, recycling rate targets and behavior change programs are all vehicles that can, with an understanding of local and regional characteristics, effectively move the needle on improving the ever-increasing plastic waste problem.
We live and operate in a global economy, so China’s ban may have reverberating consequences if it fails to create a system that is multidimensional and transparent, and does not consider the global enterprise. For a ban to be effective, infrastructure and a comprehensive recycling program is needed, one that incorporates mechanical and chemical recycling technologies. While mechanical recycling is viewed as the primary mechanism to reduce the environmental and waste management issues, a high percentage of mixed chemistry, low-quality, low-density plastic material may never be eligible for traditional recycling or reuse without advanced techniques coupled with a fundamental redesign of the materials. Reengineering plastics so that they can be broken down into its molecular components at the end of its life and then remanufactured into new plastics of equal quality will bring value to our economy and reduce the dependence on virgin sources while shepherding us to a more sustainable path. Globally, we should be evaluating ways to recapture the economic value of plastics — it’s an untapped resource.
However, growing the market and creating business opportunities require a significant paradigm shift in how we view plastics. This will entail novel approaches to chemical recycling, such as pyrolysis to manage the millions of tons of low-value complex polymers, and associated regulatory reform for it to take shape. It will also involve completely new infrastructure, supply chains, and partnerships with better solutions that drive process efficiencies across the entire system while improving cost structure. Innovative technologies exist, many of them emerging and scaling, but if these are adopted and scaled along with modernized regulations that keep pace with technological advancements, there is tremendous opportunity and economic value to be realized. In order to reach this goal, investments are needed to support these transformational technologies; educational awareness campaigns; and collaboration between industries, technology providers, and governments at all levels. If society continues to deem plastics as a “waste” with little to no value, we squander our incentive to discover ways to recapture its stored energy and reintroduce it to the economy as a fuel, feedstock or higher value product. This moves us further away in our bold quest to a circular economy.
The plastic waste strategy needs a balance of public policy interventions, voluntary reduction schemes, corporate commitments, financial incentives, changes in human behavior, and an understanding that a solution that is socially, economically, technologically, environmentally, or politically palatable in one region of the world may not be transposable in all economies. Collection, separation, and recycling of new reformulated plastics is more feasible in developed economies because there are formal, established collection processes, regulations, and taxes that reinforce recycling. In China’s situation, as is the case in most developing nations, waste collection is a fundamental first step before any other complex system is created.
Plastics are not the problem. It’s what people choose do with them that creates the disorder in our ecosystem and economy. As a global society that yearns for a circular economy, it is imperative to understand that marine debris comes almost entirely from the developing world, not countries with established waste collection systems. Instead of leveraging specious bans that distract and delay governments from confronting the actual problem, we should encourage approaches that focus on the areas of highest risk and are tailored to the needs and deficiencies of the region. Without a system to collect, the infrastructure and technology to manage all plastic polymers currently on the market, and absent responsible and informed citizens to diligently dispose of their wastes, it does not matter how many bans are in place — plastics will not be able to be managed in a controlled environment and are at high risk of entering our world’s oceans.
This post originally appeared in the Forbes blog on January 27, 2020.