Sustainable plastics design is needed, representatives agree at OECD global forum

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Photo by OECD/Mariano Bordon Plastics should not be demonised or banned altogether, says Daniel Calleja Crespo, the commission's environment director general

A global policy framework that incentivises sustainable plastics design is needed and essential in building a circular economy.

This was one of the key conclusions of the introductory session of a Global Forum on Environment in Copenhagen, staged by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), 29-31 May.

According to a note from the organisers, the forum sought to promote "a shift in sustainable chemistry thinking at the product design stage” by identifying good practice and a policy reducing the environmental and health impact of plastics.

With plastic pollution peaking, Shardul Agrawala, head of the environment and economy integration division at the OECD environment directorate, stressed the importance of the forum as an attempt to integrate global efforts to reduce plastics waste.

Indeed, the deputy director general of chemicals and waste management at the South African government’s department of environmental affairs, Mark Gordon, proposed the creation of a global protocol on sustainable plastics to ensure controls have worldwide scope. He hoped the plastics sector could adapt to such rules: “We are at the threshold of a new era of the plastics economy, and there is an increasing demand for sustainable products,” he said.

As for how such rules should be framed, the permanent secretary from the Danish ministry of environment and food, Henrik Studsgaard, stressed: “We do not want to ban it [plastics] altogether, as we regard plastics as a fantastic modern material, but we need to recycle, reuse and redesign it. We need to take the entire life cycle of plastics into consideration.”

As an EU member state, Denmark will have to follow the European Union (EU) lead on such issues, notably legislation that could follow the European Commission proposing bans on single-use plastic products such as cotton buds and plastic straws and putting the burden of cleaning up waste on manufacturers to reduce marine litter.

However, Daniel Calleja Crespo, the Commission’s environment director general said that plastics should not be demonised or banned altogether, as “plastics play a key role in building a circular economy”.

He emphasised the importance of the design of the product: “Everything starts with the design of the product. If we optimise the design it leads to more dismantlable and recyclable plastics” and added that everyone has a role to play in the change from a linear towards a circular economy.

Photo by OECD YouTube video

According to the new OECD report, released before the event, ‘Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics’, governments should act urgently to encourage more and better recycling as there is rising public concern over plastic pollution, and recycling is failing to reach its full potential as low recovery rates of plastic waste, poor quality of recycled plastic and a lack of price incentives are holding back secondary plastic markets.

In 2015, about 380 million tonnes of plastics globally was produced, up from 2 million tonnes in the 1950s. Yet today only 15% of this plastic waste is collected and recycled into secondary plastics globally each year. Plastics have become one of the most prolific materials on the planet, and the pervasiveness of plastics is becoming an urgent public health and planetary problem.

The author of the report and principal administrator of the OECD’s waste team, Peter Börkey, explained that the design stage of the plastics products is crucial and determines the environmental impacts down the line.

Although he thinks that EU’s ban of single use plastics makes sense, bans need to be considered carefully, because plastics deliver a lot of benefits, he said.

“Instead, we must detoxify the materials that go into our economy in order to be able to effectively clean and close the loops and ensure the safety of our environment and health.”

To do so, we need a global response and to set international goals, Peter Börkey said the recent interest in plastics is a good opportunity to implement some ambitious policy proposals.

“Policy actions is at its infancy. But on the national level, we need to level the playing field between recycled and virgin plastics, and to remove environmental harmful subsidies, and we may need to levy taxes on primary plastics to reflect the externalities that they are generating,” he said.

He hoped the forum would raise awareness about the existing opportunities in improving the design of plastics to create a policy framework that incentivises sustainable plastics design in the future.

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