Infrastructure, framework and action: Now is the time to enable change and create sustainable communities
With global waste rising, TOMRA explores why there needs to be a change in framework and infrastructure to enable sustainable communities.
We cannot afford to waste any more time in our efforts to tackle waste and create sustainable communities. Global waste is expected to reach 3.4 billion tons in 2050 – a 70% increase on the latest figures – and 40% of all current plastic waste is entering and polluting our environment.
The performance of existing recycling systems is also wavering. In the US, for example, the recycling rate has stagnated at 34%. Despite investment in curbside recycling, this figure has plateaued for two decades. We have reached a crisis point.
Change is needed now and more must be done to help increase global recycling rates and ensure resources are handled responsibly. 95% of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy after its initial use but if we can reverse this, we can unlock its economic potential.
New regulatory and legislative frameworks can be the catalyst for the kind of action we need to see. Waste knows no borders, so we need a coordinated approach both within and between nations. We need an approach that works across the entire value chain– placing emphasis on reducing waste throughout a product’s lifecycle, ensuring products are designed for recyclability, and incentivizing collection.
Doing so will enable products to remain in a closed loop and help society create communities that value and embrace sustainable practices.
Introducing a global regulatory framework to create sustainable communities
The current regulatory framework is proving to be inadequate for the creation of sustainable communities. Although helpful, voluntary pledges and commitments alone are not the sole answer to this global waste problem either, given that society has made minimal progress so far.
A coordinated global regulatory framework is required to address the key gaps in international plastic governance and tackle the issue of waste. This should be aligned with clear recycled content targets to ensure market demand for recycled plastic is met too. There is a huge opportunity, and if we are ambitious with the regulatory frameworks we introduce, a huge positive impact can be made on waste reduction.
A global agreement focusing on key definitions and standards, providing a common policy framework on global reporting and methodologies, and supporting the implementation of international capacity building activities, is of paramount importance. This global approach would help businesses to find scalable solutions to suit operational needs and meet required regulations.
This is why TOMRA has signed an international manifesto, The Business Call for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, which calls on governments worldwide to establish a UN treaty to tackle plastic pollution.
Legislation such as the European Union’s Single-Use Plastic Directive (SUPD), which has targets of 25% recycled content in PET bottles by 2025 and 30% recycled content in all plastic bottles by 203 is a key enabler of sustainable resource use and waste reduction.
The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) is also encouraging its members to pass regulations that foster sustainable communities. It recently passed a resolution for members to adopt “innovative” approaches to marine pollution such as container deposit schemes for beverage containers in an attempt to prevent and reduce marine pollution by 2025.
Taking action to reduce beverage waste
One of the main areas of concern when it comes to waste is used beverage containers. In its annual report, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup found that two of the top five most commonly found items of litter were related to beverage containers, in the form of the containers themselves and the caps. At a country level, a survey commissioned by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggests that three-quarters of all litter in the UK is beverage related.
However, with the right collection system in place, consumers can be incentivised to correctly dispose of their beverage containers. A collection model such as a deposit return scheme (DRS), or alternatively known as deposit return system or bottle bill, adds a small deposit onto the price of a beverage container, which is then repaid when the consumer returns it for recycling. The latest data from all European DRSs shows that the average collection rate for PET plastic containers is 94%.
In the past three years alone at least 23 states or countries have committed to update or develop deposit return systems, soon bringing the global total to more than 60, meaning increased interest in handling materials more sustainably. Taking Europe in isolation’, 13 countries will implement or expand deposit return over the course of the next four years, including Portugal, Turkey and England.
In addition, public attitudes strongly favour of the implementation of a DRS. In a fact sheet from Reloop, which represents a compilation of more than 60 public opinion polls gathered on a global scale from 2003-2020, a median of 82% of people stated they supported the introduction of a scheme. A median of 82% also said they would like to see the expansion of existing DRSs, whilst 84% said they were in favour of the existing DRS. The data was captured from participants across parts of Europe, as well as the USA, Canada and Australia.
A recent example of a container deposit scheme in action comes from Lithuania. Prior to implementing a deposit system in 2016, the country had a collection rate of 34% for beverage containers. But at the end of its first year, the DRS had a return rate of 74%, followed by 92% at the end of its second year – a vast improvement in a short period of time.
This is a proven solution for enabling more sustainable practices worldwide and it starts with a decision by policymakers.
Promoting resource responsibility
Promoting improved sustainability on a global scale, however, goes beyond waste collection processes. We need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product. From the beginning, the way we design products has a critical impact on whether they can be recycled or reused. Now, more than ever, recyclability needs to be front of mind when designing products. This includes using design intelligently to remove unnecessary material components from products to ensure they can be recycled as soon as they are no longer required.
Designing for recyclability ensures the product as a whole can be recycled and can mitigate the risk of unnecessary resources being wasted, and allows government, corporations and consumers to sustainably handle resources. For the best sustainability practices, we need to keep materials within a closed loop so they can be reused and recycled.
And to truly make an impact on the current plastic pollution crisis, businesses, governments and society must collaborate. A new report from Systemiq and the Pew Charitable Trusts shows plastic flows into the ocean expected to triple by 2040 – but taking immediate action could stem the tide by more than 80%.
As well as businesses taking a proactive approach to waste reduction, TOMRA believes leadership from governments across the globe, and the adoption of a dedicated multilateral environmental agreement, are key to tackling the plastic pollution crisis.
To meaningfully reduce waste and foster sustainable communities it’s clear we need to embrace radical collaboration on reimagining the entire life-cycle of products from a holistic perspective.
 Calculated based on collection rates from Global Data, deposit system Central System Administrators, and “PET Market in Europe: State of Play,” Eunomia. 2020.