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Diplomacy is Key to an Effective Global Treaty on Plastic

Credit: Alamy

Philip Law, Director General | British Plastics Federation

6 min read Partner content

We now have the opportunity to pursue a collaborative, balanced approach on managing plastic waste.

In February, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme Inger Andersen wrote an article in the Times called ‘The world must unite in a war against plastic’. But I urge diplomacy — not the suggestion of a metaphorical ‘war’ — on this issue, after an upcoming global plastics treaty was announced at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly last week. We need sharp minds rather than sharpened swords, minds that are prepared to listen to a wide range of stakeholders and for decisions to be evidence led.

Andersen does make the excellent point that there is too much plastic waste in the environment and that something must be done about it. The plastics industry certainly agrees with this and supports the concept of a global treaty. But before the details of a treaty comes negotiation — and that is where the dialogue comes in, carefully measuring arguments on the scales of justice. For there are two sides to this particular story that need to be examined with forensic precision. The fact that Andersen’s article was so impassioned is evidence that plastics have become a subject fraught with emotion. When an international treaty is being discussed one would hope that the interlocutors have cool heads, maintain their composure and recognise the role of sound science.

Too much is at stake to get the balance wrong. Environmental sustainability is the top priority but before the world runs headlong into replacing plastics with other materials, it needs to stop and consider if the alternatives really are more sustainable.

A sweeping statement like “chemicals in plastics can radically change the normal functioning of our hormones” needs considerable qualification. It makes no mention of the fact that polymers are inert. The manufacture and use of plastics in Western Europe and North America is strictly regulated. In the EU, the REACH regulation is the most advanced system for controlling chemicals in the world. Further, there have been EU risk assessments carried out on certain high-profile chemicals such as bisphenol-A and these have been judged to be safe in existing uses with no risk to the consumer. Plastics in contact with foodstuffs are also carefully regulated in Western Europe.

Andersen also speaks of plastics representing “a driver of global warming”. This is precisely where balance needs to be recognised. It is quite alarming that she makes no mention of the immense carbon savings made by plastics in use in a myriad of applications. Plastics massively reduce the weight of vehicles and aircraft, requiring much less fuel and producing correspondingly less pollution. In buildings, for example, plastics in doors, windows, roofing and flooring improve energy efficiency, in part due to their low conductivity. In packaging, they prevent the wastage of foodstuffs often traversing lengthy supply chains and save the resulting carbon emissions from spoilt food.

In the article, Andersen also stated that “the plastics industry must change”. In fact, the plastics industry has been changing for decades and in the direction indicated. It is what we do, constantly evolving to meet society’s changing needs. We’ve been progressively using less plastic raw material to make products from long before the concept of ‘sustainability’ was christened! Classic examples are well documented and include much lighter yoghurt pots and carbonated drinks bottles, which have benefitted from improved design and technology. There is also now a well-established practice of ‘design for recycling’, with a plethora of design guides available.

For a relatively young industry, an impressive amount of plastic is now being recycled in Western Europe. National recycling schemes for packaging have been in place since the 1990s. In the UK we now recycle over 50% of plastic packaging waste. Additionally, voluntary schemes have led the way. The PVC sector has had its voluntary commitment, ‘VinylPlus’(formerly ‘Vinyl 2020’), for over 20 years, responsible for recycling PVC window frames, roofing, pipes and flooring, among other products. Now, innovation in the plastics industry is seeing the emergence of a new generation of chemical recycling technologies capable of recycling combinations of materials that previously proved difficult. Please give credit where credit is due! However, there remains room for improvement and the BPF recently published a Recycling Roadmap to show how the UK can more than triple the amount it reprocesses in the UK by 2030.

Recognising and accepting the benefits of plastic needs to be part of the dialogue if we are to identify the best solutions for the planet.

People also shouldn’t run away with the idea that all plastics are ‘single use’. Swathes of plastic packaging can be re-used such as large container drums and crates, and heavy-duty sacks. Plus plastic has a key role to play in reusable packaging too. Very many plastic products have surprisingly long lives – windows have a proven lifespan of over 30 years and pipes systems a life of many decades. Other products can be repaired or remanufactured.

Andersen’s article arguably gives the impression that the plastics industry stands alone as a pariah with its own unique interests separate from the rest of society upon which it preys. Nothing could be further from the truth. The industry in the UK alone employs 180,000 people, even without applying a multiplier for family dependents or employees of supporting businesses. They breathe in the same air and walk the same hills as the rest of society. Very many of them are committed environmentalists. Plastic companies are established parts of their local communities. Society benefits from their products. Take healthcare: if you stripped plastics out of hospitals you would be left with little more than metal framed beds. Vital, life-saving implants are made from plastics. Many surgical interventions would be impossible without plastics. The plastics industry is truly integrated into society and the modern innovations we rely upon.

Recognising and accepting the benefits of plastic needs to be part of the dialogue if we are to identify the best solutions for the planet. As does the fact that there is no single approach to solving the issue of mismanaged plastic waste polluting the seas. Measures should be adaptable to local environments, cultures and issues. Reaching the best solutions will require collaboration between governments, an industry prepared to continue changing, civil society and academia, as well as the support and buy-in of the wider community, which also has a key role in ultimately managing plastic waste more intelligently.

These are the crucial points that need to be considered for a truly informed dialogue on the future role of plastics in life on earth. Lack of balance could result in deleterious consequences for the environment, economy and society. It is much, much too serious a subject for the bigger picture to be ignored or swept aside.

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