Envisaging the future of plastics policy

4 December 2019


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In late November, policymakers and academics gathered at St. John’s Divinity School for a CSaP-facilitated roundtable on the future of plastics. The roundtable, chaired by Professor Susan E Owens OBE from Cambridge’s Department of Geography was an opportunity to examine current plastics policies, and to explore possible avenues for future innovation and improvement in this policy area. Framing the discussion, it was suggested that plastics policy has become emblematic of other issues in environmental policy. This generates both hope for progress, and the possibility of the emergence of new controversies as approaches to tackling the issue are debated in the mainstream.

Recent steps in government to make progress on the plastics issue have included steps to ban single use plastics products such as straws, and consultations on using negative incentives to reduce single-use plastic waste. Moreover, the subject of plastics and waste reduction was woven throughout the Government’s A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment strategy. Building upon these steps, there were suggestions from some attendees that future-oriented policy thinking could potentially involve extending producer responsibility for packaging and managing plastic waste by increasing the supply of and demand for recycled materials throughout the economy. Policymakers also have to work in a context where the devolved administrations in the United Kingdom have different legislation and approaches towards this issue, approaches which differ again from those being taken in other parts of Europe. A geographically segmented approach to solutions may become more of an issue in future, given the global scale of the underlying problem.

Efforts to reduce plastic consumption will necessitate understanding how much plastic we currently use, and how we use it. It is estimated that the United Kingdom currently produces 1.6 million tonnes of plastic in primary form and imports another 3.6 million tonnes, with our plastic consumption having remained stable over the past decade. While researchers have been working to measure these plastic flows in the UK economy, mapping to understand the scale of these flows has proved difficult given disparate, and in some cases non-existent, data. In using available data, it is also important for researchers, and for policymakers, to differentiate between plastic products based on their lifespans, which ran range from less than a year for single-use plastic packaging to years or decades in industries such as construction, agriculture, and the automotive sector.

This industry-based assessment must also be accompanied by an examination of the main decision-makers in the system. As we seek to reduce plastic consumption and increase the circularity of plastics in the economy, consumers, producers, governments and the international sector all have roles to play. Here, policymakers will need to operate in a context where many businesses and producers presently plan production around planned obsolesce, a business model which efforts to develop a circular economy must confront. In fostering the development of a circular economy, policymakers will also have to take into consideration key components of viable business models, including economic viability, the creation of value through corporate social responsibility, awareness of shifting consumer demographics, the preservation of business margins, and business productivity.

Thinking about the space plastic occupies in our businesses and industries should also be accompanied by a reflection of the space it occupies in our lives. This will involve a reflection of how plastics are framed and used, as well as reflections upon alternative materials which might become acceptable to consumers. Within this space, plant biochemists have proposed that there may be a place for their work in generating alternatives. While there is great potential to improve these alternative materials, there remain challenges, including that some of these products in development are not yet sufficiently resistant to water or oxygen, rendering them unsuitable for food preservation. More work will be needed in policy and regulation to develop standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics.

Throughout the roundtable, participants raised questions of agency, time, and place. Some acknowledged there can be a lack of clarity in the aims those seeking to reduce plastic are trying to achieve, with plastic pollution as well as reduction of carbon emissions being among the targets to aim for using a variety of approaches. Others raised industry’s struggle to keep up with the excitement of consumers who want to ‘do good’. It was also emphasized that appropriate market research, internalizing the environmental cost of plastic, and building brand stickiness by providing a service with an end of life experience for plastic products may have roles to pay in solutions. The crucial takeaway from the session was that it is vital that actors engaged with this issue in different sectors engage with one another, to ensure that broad rather than narrow solutions are sought to this enormous challenge.

You can read the plastics workshop report here.

Professor Susan Owens

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge