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Plastic Solid Waste Management

This report on plastic solid waste management provides an overview of the current state of plastic recycling and management and seeks to provide a look into the future of plastic solid waste management.

It is a baseline reference report and not a detailed technical guide to plastic recycling routes.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Widely used in industrial, commercial, and household products, plastic is an extremely functional, durable, and versatile material. But a consumption model based on take, make, and dispose principles and a dysfunctional recycling system have made plastic one of the most pressing environmental challenges facing us today. Much of the plastic that has not been recycled is either in landfill or in the natural environment—on land or in the ocean. Large identifiable plastic items disintegrate and degrade over time to become microplastics—which never fully disappear—and eventually find their way into our food chain and ocean. Over the last 30 years plastic use has increased exponentially and presents a huge cost for the environment and human health.

Using less plastic or focusing on recycling in isolation will simply never be enough to address the plastic challenge. Instead, a move toward a circular economy—trying to use resources for as long as possible, extracting as much value from them as is practicable, and then recovering them—holds the key to real progress. Simultaneously, governments and the recycling industry need to work together to create a functional waste collection system at a global scale for better plastic solid waste management. Lastly, the future health of the planet depends on a step change in plastic recycling technologies to increase recycling rates and produce high quality recyclates.

Chemical recycling technologies may offer the greatest potential to recover and reuse plastic that currently cannot be recycled. However, many of the chemical recycling technologies are still evolving and not tested at commercial scale. In the interim, the recycling industry should prioritize mechanical recycling, which has a comparatively low carbon footprint. In the long term, mechanical and chemical recycling should be applied on a complementary basis.

Increasingly, governments, business, and activists are building momentum to manage plastic waste globally. One of the solutions to manage plastic pollution is the use of biodegradable plastics—a category of plastics that can be broken down by microbes and turned into natural materials (e.g., biomass, water, etc.). While biodegradable plastics hold promise, biodegradation is only possible under specific conditions such as industrial composting plants and can be slow or incomplete in the natural environment. Biodegradable plastic needs to be managed like conventional plastic and should not be disposed of in an uncontrolled manner. Because biodegradable plastics are novel materials, we lack reliable information regarding their benefits and risks.

The world cannot tackle the plastic waste challenge in isolation; solutions to the plastic problem must be integral to the transition to a circular economy. Collective and coordinated action is needed from governments (e.g., policy intervention), industry (e.g., commitment to reduce plastic use, designing packaging that is reusable or recyclable), and society (e.g., informed, conscious decisions to reuse or refuse plastic) to curb the plastic waste and protect the natural environment and oceans against plastic pollution.

Insights for What’s Ahead

Regulatory activity to curb plastic waste will continue to pick up In response to plastic pollution emerging as a global challenge, the public has built up pressure to act. Several countries, regions, and cities have introduced regulations and legislation focused on plastic. These are primarily aimed at use and disposal to reduce consumption and improve waste management. Companies should keep abreast of emerging regulatory trends in this area.

Companies will be increasingly expected by stakeholders (e.g., consumers, employees, regulators, etc.) to address plastic waste across their products’ value chain Growing concern around single-use plastics and the potential of it ending up in oceans and landfills has made sustainable packaging a priority issue for many companies. A number of companies (including Coca-Cola, Nestle, P&G, and others) have responded by setting targets to reduce their plastic footprint and focusing on using products that contain more recycled content and are recyclable. Because not all approaches work for every organization, companies should carefully choose their approach to packaging and products. This might also result in new business opportunities as companies try to meet the demand for recycled plastics materials.

Companies can use their circular economy initiatives to build brand equity Ecofriendliness resonates with consumers and can be a gateway for brands to speak to customers interested in sustainability. Companies can use their circular economy initiatives to build brand equity by creating emotional connections and making consumers feel good about embracing sustainable brands. This holds true for B2B companies, as well.

Plastic management will see a major change in the coming decade, presenting new business opportunities The transformation toward a circular economy along with the demand for recycled plastic (several companies have set targets for the use of recycled plastics) will create new business opportunities in the recycling sector. With fast evolving technology and a rapidly changing regulatory scenario, companies, including those operating in consumer goods, chemical, digital, logistics, and the plastics sector, may want to scan the market for technological developments that could create new business opportunities and be prepared to adopt a new business model.

AUTHORS

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Anuj Saush

Senior Researcher, Governance & Sustainability; Council Director, Environment Strategy Council
The Conference Board

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Dr. Uwe G. Schulte

Leader, Global Sustainability Centre and Program Director
The Conference Board


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