Dominic Hogg, Director of Equanimator and former Chairman of Eunomia, tells us why making plastic packaging recyclable will not address the problem of plastic pollution – and why the over-reliance on waste pickers to tackle plastic pollution in developing countries is problematic.
Littering of packages, and not just plastic ones, is a source of disamenity, or loss in value associated with its impact on an area’s appearance. Littered items can be the direct cause of harm to wildlife and other economic damage. These values, in advanced economies, are non-trivial. If we try to express them in a way which renders them comparable with, for example, the environmental benefits from recycling, then they seem to be higher by a factor of around a hundred, and that’s without taking into account the economic impact of plastics in the marine environment.
Approaches to dealing with littering need to appreciate the context where this happens. In advanced economies, where households typically receive a waste collection service (albeit, still, of varying quality), then packaging from households has a good chance of being collected if it’s consumed in the home. The litter problem relates more to littering of packages linked to consumption that happens ‘in the open’, as well as during collection and transfer of waste, and in the way facilities are managed. Littering of (not just plastic) items consumed out of the home can be dealt with through use of sensible combinations of taxes, bans and deposit refunds, supported by requiring producer responsibility schemes to fund litter prevention and clean-up. That remains ‘work in progress’.
Outside advanced economies, there is often no waste collection other than informal activity that targets wastes that are of some value. World Bank data from 2016 suggest that outside high-income countries, 44% of the world’s population has no formal waste collection service. All relevant studies point to the absence of such waste collection services as the primary reason for macroplastics flowing into oceans.
In these circumstances, all plastic packages have the potential to cause harm. It follows that where brands sign up to phasing out ‘unnecessary or problematic’ plastics, then across much of the world’s population, unless and until the means exist to ensure that the quantity finding its way into the environment is very substantially reduced, companies signing up to those commitments should cease using plastic packaging.
There is a school of thought that says that ‘making items recyclable’ will solve the problem, even in places with no formal collection service. The line of thinking runs that the informal waste picker community already picks up items which they can sell because they have value; if items are made recyclable, they will acquire value; ergo, if we make items ‘recyclable’, waste pickers will ensure these items don’t find their way to rivers and oceans.
There are two flaws in this logic: first, waste pickers are not everywhere, and they do not intercept all items. Among the plastic packages most often found littered on beaches across the world are plastic beverage bottles and their caps, even though this form of consumer plastic packaging is the most easily recycled. Making something recyclable clearly doesn’t guarantee it ceases to be a problem. Second, the value of some items, even if they were made recyclable where they are currently not, is likely to be very low (consider the sachet made of a gram or so of monopolymer plastic). Relying on these being picked up for recycling as a strategy for tackling plastic pollution looks rather like hoping that people remain so poor that these items are regarded as being sufficiently valuable to target for collection. If major businesses’ strategies for dealing with plastics amount to hoping for poverty to persist, they should be open about this.
Taken together, it’s clear that in the absence of comprehensive waste collection services, alongside a wider use of innovative deposit refund schemes (which would give greater value to packages without making the packaging itself expensive), the problem of plastic pollution will not go away. Providing better waste collection and management services will help address other problems, notably in relation to climate change and air quality. A concerted push from major global brands to support the development of these services is needed.
For a wide range of single-use items, the case for banning their use, with appropriate lead-in times, is already compelling. If rapid progress is not made on providing adequate collection services in places where there currently are none, then the only viable route for addressing plastic pollution will be to ban completely the use of single-use plastic packaging in all countries where such services remain limited.