Reducing the risks from plastic

© Peter Börkey

Plastic is everywhere, with about 380 million tonnes produced worldwide in 2015, up from 2 million tonnes in the 1950s. Only an estimated 15% is collected and recycled, while plastic that is not properly treated poses a serious environmental threat. An OECD report published in May (Improving markets for recycled plastics) studied how plastics could be better managed, recycled and reused. Peter Börkey, OECD Environment Directorate Principal Administrator, who led the work on the report, answered questions on issues around plastics. 


Plastic waste and its environmental effects – most notably in the oceans – have become high-profile and high-concern issues. There seems to be a momentum building to better tackle plastic. Can it help solve the problem? 

Peter BörkeyI heard some people say that plastic is the new polar bear, as it is so graphic and stirs people’s emotions. It has indeed become a very important political issue. As a consequence, there are now proposals to ban plastics from certain uses, but this area also warrants caution. At the OECD, we are still researching this in detail but one should not forget that while plastic products generate an environmental cost, they also generate a lot of benefits. 


So think before you ban? 

Quite. The experience we have from the ban on free single carrier plastic bags, for example, is very positive. As soon as even very small levies were put on them, the use of these bags almost disappeared. This showed that there was very little benefit or utility lost to consumers, and that substituting them was no problem. Whether the same will apply to straws or plastic cutlery remains to be seen, as there is always the risk that the substitutes might actually have a larger environmental footprint over their entire life cycle. 


A suggested ban on plastic straws caught the headlines when the European Commission presented its plastics strategy as one of the action plans of its circular economy agenda earlier this year. How do you rate this strategy overall? 

At the moment it is just a vision; concrete policy action has yet to be developed, so one needs to be mindful of a possible implementation gap. But it certainly goes in the right direction. The strategy has an entire chapter on improving the economics and quality of recycled plastics, which we in our OECD report also found to be essential if you want to reduce the overall environmental footprint of plastics production. More sustainable design, better capturing of plastic waste for recycling, improving the recycling process and capacity and last but not least creating a viable market for recycled plastic products: all of that is included in the plastics strategy, so the EU and the OECD are fairly well aligned here. 


Among the many insights of your report is that plastics are such a complex material with new polymers constantly being invented to satisfy market needs. Doesn’t that make plastics recycling a daunting prospect? 

Yes, it is difficult to get a handle on this. The market is pushing for ever more diversity of materials and materials combinations. They don’t glue together different kind of polymers just for the fun of it, of course, but because every layer has a very specific function. But there is innovation out there which addresses this in an ingenious way. For example, at our Global Forum on plastics recycling in Copenhagen in May 2018, we heard from a professor from the University of Pittsburgh who is working on creating multi-layered packaging for food out of a single polymer, with each of the layers using different molecular structures to provide for the different functions that would otherwise be achieved by layers of different polymers. His packaging would be much easier to recycle. But can it be scaled-up, and can it be cost-effective? 


Virgin plastics production is highly cost-efficient. How can recycled plastics hope to compete? 

There are two main obstacles, but they are not unsurmountable. Recycled plastics are more expensive to produce than virgin plastics but their production uses a lot less energy and significantly reduces the environmental footprint of plastic products: by a factor of ten in terms of emissions, for example. So the case for more recycled plastics is clear, and it would be for policymakers to create a level playing field. The second obstacle is quality. Recycled products often do not meet the standards required. On this front, innovation is called for and there are many exciting developments in the pipeline, such as the packaging example I mentioned. But the main industries using plastic products  the automotive, packaging and food and drinks industries – also have a very important role to play by coming up with industry standards that allow for simplification and a reduction in the diversity of plastic materials used. 


Where does Europe stand internationally on this? 

Europe is very much at the forefront on these issues, even if there are still huge disparities across the EU and between individual member states. But in other parts of the world, the emphasis on plastics recycling and the circular economy has been less pronounced generally. This is now changing, but for the moment Europe is clearly the most ambitious region and everybody is looking to the EU for inspiration and guidance.