As companies and elected officials in the United States continue to debate plastic waste and a circular economy, they often look toward other nations that are farther ahead in their planning and designs.
That focus was behind part of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s SPC Engage online forum held July 20–21, where experts from the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Chile provided overviews of their sustainability efforts.
Canada often is studied in the United States because it developed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs that involve substantial input from industry stakeholders. In the United States this year, Maine and Oregon put EPR programs in motion that don’t provide for similar industry input, a situation that observers in the flexible packaging industry see as concerning. The expectation is that other states will develop their own rules in 2022, increasing pressure on the federal government to step in and offer guidance, financial support, and policies that could lead to harmonization of efforts across the states and municipalities in the U.S.
Canada, the U.S., and most other countries share the same macro issues for figuring out the best paths forward, although Canada is much further along in that process than the U.S. For example, Canada generated about 1.9 million tons of plastic packaging in 2019 and about 12% gets recycled, with 88% either ending up in landfills or the environment, says George Roter, managing director, Canada Plastics Pact (CPP). The figure in the U.S. is roughly 8% recycled.
Canada has spent some time trying to unpack its data and found that recycling participation increases when combined with deposit systems. It also found that participation by residents is substantially higher than businesses and industry. The goal with such studies is to figure out where to focus efforts and resources. While participation by residents is higher, “it is still not great,” Roter points out. The goal is to get all stakeholders involved to solve the mutual problems. CPP is a collaboration platform that includes businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations, and others along the plastics value chain to achieve actionable targets by 2025 that is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Plastics Pact Network.
The data also looks at how rigid packaging stacks up against flexible packaging, which can further inform decisions, he adds. Meanwhile, the plastics markets overall continue to grow, and consumer expectations continue to evolve, with 90% of Canadian residents wanting to see more government or company action on the issues.
“A business-as-usual approach is not moving fast enough, so something needs to change if we are going to get to zero plastic waste or better circularity,” he says, adding that Canada has set a zero plastic waste goal by 2030.
It’s broadly agreed in Canada that citizens care and the government will lead, Roter says. The country is building solid momentum for a circular economy where plastics are used but not finding their way into the environment. Long term the shifts will be good for the economy, adding jobs while meeting environmental goals, he says.
He and others point out that the obstacles to creating a circular economy are numerous, with one issue being that producing plastics from fossil fuels remains the cheapest way to make plastics. Technological barriers are exacerbated by poor information flow along the supply chain that leads to a lack of harmonization of policies—or funding going to the wrong places. Also, throwing waste into landfills remains the cheapest way to dispose of trash, Roter notes.
All of those factors create significant barriers for the markets to evolve, Roter says. But the dynamic between supply and demand is shifting. That includes businesses taking more leadership and designing packaging with best practices that will optimize production for recycling. The EPR regulations across Canada are an opportunity to drive up performance in the system, he says. But that still will require a massive scale-up of infrastructure—with a $6.5 billion investment required.
Usman Valiante, a technical adviser to CPP, suggests that there are more opportunities in Canada than challenges. Canada is a “petrochemical powerhouse,” Valiante says, pointing out that a lot of the chemistry needed to create plastics is the same that is needed to recycle plastics. That puts Canada in a position to export its technologies and knowledge to other countries worldwide.
Brand owners also have determined that consumers shouldn’t be asked to make environmental decisions at the store shelf, so brands increasingly design packaging so that it can be recycled without consumers having to choose them.
He and others point out that harmonization issues require coordination among the hundreds of municipal recycling systems and working with service providers to create large-scale systems that have advanced technology for sorting materials. The large investments require working with the private sector to build the facilities.
“That is going to be the challenge that is coming,” he says.
In Europe, the European Union (EU) has put in place systems that will require the 27 member countries to follow the rules for creating a circular economy, which calls for plastic recycling to increase 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030.
David Buhe, policy officer for packaging waste for the European Commission that is the executive body of the EU, says the goal is to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent. That task requires the participation of all players along the packaging value chain. Recently, bans on many single-use plastics have been put in place, including cutlery, plates, and cups. Plastics also need to bear the markings for proper waste disposal, he notes.
The reaction has varied depending on the type of industry. Some have seized on what they see as opportunities, Buhe says. But it is widely recognized that the EU could not continue like it had been, so packaging designs increasingly incorporate the main circularity goals, which are to ensure that waste can be reused, reduced, or recycled. The studies seeking best practices keep going deeper, he says. For example, reuse is preferable to recycling. So, he adds, experts will examine whether something designed to be recycled could have been designed for reuse.
The solutions come from many fronts, including deposit schemes that require citizens to be motivated. Overall, he adds, European businesses and residents are united with the goals and achieving a true circular economy, Buhe says.
Australia also has been aggressive in meeting circularity goals.
Brooke Donnelly, CEO of Australian Packaging Covenant, says her organization coordinates with the various stakeholders to ensure that goals stay on track as they make the transitions to a circular economy. That means the organization provides direction and resources to support the work being done by numerous contributors, including industries, recyclers, and consumers.
That work started with the recognition that the island country faced a systemic problem that required shared solutions. Her agency acts as a “centralized gatekeeper” to facilitate the groups working together, while identifying any gaps in the system so that people can create tangible solutions and actionable steps through collaboration.
“You need accountability in collaboration,” she says.
People tend to overly focus on technological solutions, she adds. While innovations are important, she stresses, the focus needs to be on systemic changes because transitioning to a circular economy is a social issue that requires everyone to have buy-in.
“It is a collective approach to solving a shared problem,” Donnelly says.
Chile has made great strides toward a circular economy to the point where it has become an international leader, says Adam Gendell, senior consultant, Eunomia Research & Consulting. Those steps have included EPR legislation dating to 2013, a ban on plastic bags in 2018, and bans on some single-use plastics this year.
“Chile has not received attention as a leader,” says Gendell, who was a moderator of the discussions during the forum. “Clearly, a number of big, bold steps are being taken.”
Guillermo Gonzalez Caballero, head of circular economy for Chile’s Ministry of the Environment, says a lot of the advancements came after raising awareness of plastics pollution and how little of it is being recycled. Businesses increasingly realize that consumers are demanding change, which has led politicians to take notice. The bills calling for restrictions on plastic bags and then on single-use plastics were unanimously approved by both chambers of Chile’s congress. Despite political polarization in other areas, there is agreement with circularity, he says.
“This is an issue where all actors from the business sector and the political sector, left and right, have seen that citizens are increasingly interested and are increasingly concerned,” Caballero says. “Climate change seems remote, but this is an area where they can take small actions on a daily level.”
Such buy-in can be seen with other stakeholders, agrees Antonia Biggs, head of sustainability at Chile Plastics Pact, Fundación Chile. Through the pact, Chile was one of the first countries to sign on to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation challenge in 2018 to take substantial steps toward a circular economy by 2025. Biggs’ agency works closely with the government and others to meet four goals: eliminate problematic packaging through redesign or innovation or alternative delivery; have plastic containers and packaging designed to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable; have a third of household and non-household packaging reused, recycled or composted by 2025; and see that all plastic containers and packaging among various formats have an average of 25% of recycled materials.
The challenges are big. Chile has about 20 million people with about 10 curbside collection programs and a robust system of non-curbside collection systems, but EPR programs are important to reach goals. The EPR programs require companies that produce packaging of any kind to organize and fund recycling schemes, with the goal to increase recycling levels by five-fold, Caballero says. That’s not going to happen until curbside programs are increased, he adds.
“We need to make it as easy as taking out the garbage,” Caballero adds.
As different approaches are explored from the various stakeholders, he also says, adjustments have been made to proposed targets and goals. For example, plastic bottles have not been banned because they easily can be recycled. Instead, single-use bottles can stay single-use as long as they contain recycled materials.
The government also has learned that it needs to adjust policies and plans as more data comes in and as various stakeholders express concerns. With the ban on plastic bags in 2018, the assumption was that reusable bags would replace them. Instead, more paper bags started being used, he says. When the time came to ban some single-use plastics, the details were important. So, for example, everything on the tray of a fast-food restaurant must be reusable.
“That was a major breakthrough in terms of how we understand single-use materials in general,” he says, adding that industry representatives were included in discussions. Reasonable suggestions and recommendations were accepted, Caballero says.
That input has also influenced timelines and other targets, as well as fine-tuning definitions such as what is compostable and what is not.
Chile also has made significant strides with labeling, which helps avoid greenwashing. After a significant study of labels worldwide, Chile decided to adopt two labels. One is a consumer-friendly label placed on the front of a package, so consumers know right away what they are buying. The second has the details and specifications of how the package should be handled, says Gonzalo Russi, finance director, SOFOFA, which is the federation of Chilean industry that has about 4,000 members.
Russi and Caballero say that collaboration was imperative to make the labeling process work. Some companies, including large international businesses, had packaging that was technically recyclable. But, in conversations with recyclers, they were finding out that the materials wouldn’t be accepted.
“They didn’t know that it was actually not recyclable in practice,” he says.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.