Utrecht University: Researchers’ recommendations for a sustainable plastic circular transition

Dutch policy focuses too much on technological innovations and loses sight of the bigger picture of a sustainable future when it comes to plastic. That is what Utrecht University researchers found after analysing the transition to a sustainable circular plastics economy in the Netherlands. Current policy focuses on end of pipe solutions and technological innovations which, according to the researchers, will likely not reduce the human and environmental health impact of plastic production, consumption, and recovery. They give ten recommendations meant to integrate the full social, political and ecological implication of a circular future. These recommendations prioritise reducing virgin plastic consumption, establishing eco-design requirements, and promoting re-usable alternatives to plastics.

Recommendations
Tax virgin fossil-based plastics and non-recyclable plastics and reduce the taxes on recycled plastics.
According to the researchers, the price of virgin plastics remains too low for recycling to be an economically competitive alternative. Taxes can thus make virgin fossil-based plastics and non-recyclable plastics more expensive and thereby stimulate the production and uptake of recycled plastics.

Design for recyclability and lower overall environmental impacts throughout a product’s life cycle
Plastic products currently contain a large number of different polymer types and additives, which provide specific textures, colors, and properties, but that heavily reduce recyclability. To improve the recycling potential and reduce the overall environmental impact of plastic packaging, the researchers argue that it is key to establish eco-design regulations that limit the number of additives, multilayer and composite plastic materials and support the use of sustainable alternatives.

Ban the export of plastic waste outside Europe
This policy, the researchers say, is key to ensure that plastics are properly recycled and do not end up causing more harm to human health and ecosystems. Not only will this stimulate the recycling industry in the EU, but it will also allow countries in the Global South to focus the little recycling capacity they have on their own plastic waste.

Include civil society organisations and local and national government representatives
Most of the waste in the Netherlands is currently incinerated or exported to the Global South, because it is the cheapest and most profitable option to product producers and importers. To combat this, the researchers call for a more democratic and inclusive system, where civil society organisations and local government representatives are placed in the board of Afvalfonds Verpakkingen, with an equal say in decisions compared to private actors.

Establish targets to reduce overall plastic consumption per capita
Reducing overall plastic consumption is the ultimate aim of any circular economy policy for plastics, the researchers say – it is thus key to focus on this goal as a binding policy target.

The government and companies should highly increase the use of reusable packaging
Reusable packaging has been in steady decline in the last decades. Yet, it has a unique potential as it can lead to both economic savings and environmental impact reductions compared to single-use options. To facilitate the deployment of reusable packaging options, the state should establish deposit-refund systems and reduce taxes for reusable packaging. In addition to this, the researchers call for an eco-efficient and customer-friendly design of standardised reusable packaging containers, bottles, crates, and logistical systems.

Establish a fair and just societal system
To make sure that all the fees and costs of a circular economy transition for plastics do not fall on the poorest and most vulnerable people, the researchers recommend changes in the system. The recommendations mentioned so far will increase the overall price of products for consumers, and those that have the least will pay the most as a percentage of their income. To compensate for this, it is key to redistribute some of these resources to low-income communities through projects and initiatives that employ vulnerable and disenfranchised groups and support local livelihoods. Pay-as-you-throw systems, which reward people for recycling, could also be established to redistribute part of the collected taxes and fees.

Provide financial and technological assistance to countries in the Global South so they can better manage plastic waste
Waste management infrastructure and technology is very expensive, in low-income countries it can be the single highest budget item for municipal governments. Yet these countries must deal with many other key sustainability issues from poverty to climate change and lack of housing. Therefore, the researchers say, they require significant amounts of financial and technical assistance to help them develop their waste management infrastructure. Fostering open-source technologies can also help in this regard as they can spread circular innovations and solutions throughout the world and democratise the transition to a circular economy and society.

Fund clean-up activities of plastics in the oceans and other natural ecosystems
Plastic pollution is ultimately a ‘collective action problem’, which requires global action to succeed. Those that produce and consume the most plastics and have the greatest financial capacity should, according to the researchers, thus take the lead in solving this problem by funding clean-up activities throughout the world.

Change the culture of mass consumption to reduce overall plastic use
In many ways, plastics themselves are not the problem, they are durable, efficient, and infinitely adaptable materials. Rather, the problem resides in the high-paced capitalist system of mass consumption and production that depends on cheap throwaway plastics. The question is thus not only how to better recover and reuse plastics but rather how to use less of everything. Sustainability education and awareness raising should not focus on individual consumer choices and behaviors, which have very limited environmental impacts. Instead, it should focus on ‘questioning our over-consumptive consumerist lifestyles’ and ‘challenging entrenched corporate and societal views about growth’. It is indeed key to promote post-materialist worldviews, which not only reduce the demand for unnecessary consumption but also open the door to slower, healthier, and more convivial ways of life.

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