While we’re still celebrating the Federal Microbead Free Waters Act, signed by the president in the last days of 2015, this report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Plastic Economy, barely mentions the role of policy in solving the problem. Good legislative policy levels the playing field and opens the door for innovation to replace poorly designed harmful plastics from society. If you remember, plastic microbeads are those pesky little microplastics added to facial scrubs and toothpaste and were found in the Great Lakes by the millions. Efforts to inform the consumer and negotiate with producers had not worked. The plastics industries demonstrated they are unwilling to do it on their own. It took a legislative act to protect the environment from the polluting products.
Circular Economy vs. Linear Economy
In a circular economy there are biological materials, like paper bags and popsicle sticks, that can be reabsorbed by nature, and technical materials, like circuit boards and plastic bottles, which must be recovered, dismantled and remanufactured into new products. The problem with plastic is that it’s a technical material stuck in the linear economy, in what we call the “Burn & Bury” model, with recovered plastic being largely landfilled or incinerated, and unrecovered plastic leaking into the environment. Plastic is designed to resist all of nature’s mechanisms to degrade it, yet is being used for products and packaging designed to be thrown away. In the linear economy there is loss and persistence in the environment at every step along the way, from poor product design to mismanaged waste, resulting in a ecological catastrophe of microplastic toxification, global dispersal and severe ecological impacts.
Why Legislative Policy Is Essential
This is where policy must intervene. When plastic microbeads were discovered in the Great Lakes in 2012, we went to Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson soon after a public facing campaign brought attention to the discovery. With clear evidence pointing to their products, the reaction was the hiring of the Personal Care Product Lobby to defend a poorly designed plastic product, rather than innovate a solution to an obvious problem. A policy campaign was the essential driver of design change. It wasn’t a consumer awareness program or industry innovation, although examples of both played key roles. It took the hard work of policymakers and campaigners to make the legislation happen. With policy restricting the use of microbeads in consumer products, companies can operate on a level playing field, where innovation can thrive in a space where no one has a competitive advantage of relying on the status quo.
In this figure you see the circular economy feedback loop, where technical materials are recovered through recycling, reuse, and recovery through waste diversion. Single-use throwaway plastics cannot exist in a circular economy because there is ease of loss to the environment and no incentive for recovery. The loss of biological materials, like toothpicks, is inconsequential because they are benign, whereas the loss of technical materials, like plastic straws, are valueless as waste and become toxic to the environment over time.
Look at all of the red boxes in the figure. They represent the one-way linear economy, where plastic is made, consumed and eliminated through incineration or landfill, making room for more production from virgin materials. In the Linear Economy, the “Burn & Bury” model, poorly designed single-use, throw away plastics are lost as litter, combined sewage overflow, escape waste collection systems, fly and float away from trash cans and landfills, and absorb and release toxicants along the way. And when captured in the waste management system, the small volumes of plastic in products and packaging, laminates of mixed materials, or fouling by food and filth, make them worthless to recover.
Legislative policy is necessary to do what plastics industries are unwilling or unable to do on their own. Innovative plastic alternatives are often too risky to introduce to the market when competitors still reap the benefit of consumer habit.. Consumer behavior is not a efficient driver to disincentivize consumption in the case of convenient, single-use, throw away plastics. Leadership must come from the collective will of industry to eliminate poor design.
We strongly disagree that increasing waste management infrastructure and incinerators, as suggested by the Ocean Conservancy report “Stemming the Tide”, will curb the loss of single-use, throw away plastic products and packaging. In a recent expedition to survey plastic marine pollution in the North Atlantic, ending in New York City, the last sample collected in the Hudson River showed the inefficiencies associated with the most efficient waste management infrastructure on the planet. Small plastics, including gum wrappers, ear buds, tampon applicators, industrial pellets, and plastic toothpicks were more abundant in this sample than any other sample from the middle of the North Atlantic.
(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)