A solution to plastic pollution? A plastic that doesn't pollute

A global treat to tackle plastic pollution is welcome but risks driving policy towards recycling at the expense of more effective solutions, argues Xampla CEO Simon Hombersley

A global process is now well underway to create the first ever treaty on plastic pollution. It could and should be one of the most significant steps ever made to improve the health of our planet and our people. A binding international could lock countries in to long-term global leadership that has been lacking, and support the move of global capital towards plastic replacement technology.

But amid the optimism, there is a danger too. Just as with the plastics tax focus on recycling, there is a danger the treaty could become a powerful tool driving policy further in the wrong direction. The UN process is at risk of getting hijacked by the same lobbying that has made recycling the starting point for national governments in the battle against plastic. And if the international plastics enshrines the status quo as a global norm, it will fail in its own objectives.

We all recycle. We all want to feel that we are doing our part. And ministers support recycling with good intentions, because there is a logical case and it provides some sort of interim improvement. But the unfortunate reality is that recycling doesn’t work. After decades of education on the necessity of recycling, only nine per cent of the plastic produced on this planet has ever been recycled. It is promoted as a solution by those who know it is not, mainly in the plastics and fossil fuel industries.

There are huge vested interests in continuing business as usual, meaning that the synthetic and chemical developments in the plastics industry are often presented as ‘sustainable’ when they just are nothing of the kind. ‘Chemical recycling’, for example, can be hugely carbon intensive and brings about a very low yield from the soft plastics that go into the process. These technologies may pollute less, but they still pollute.

The only solution to plastic pollution is a plastic that doesn’t pollute. The market is already recognising this, with venture capital and big brands all placing considerable and justified faith in replacement technologies. But governments are notoriously slow to catch-up. Indeed, the current commercial and regulatory drivers perversely create barriers that actually prevent viable solutions from making their way on to supermarket shelves.

Take single-use plastics such as flexible films – which are near impossible to recycle. The only sustainable answer is to replace synthetic films with natural and circular alternatives. But the UK plastic packaging tax due to be introduced next month will tax natural replacement materials as though they were actually plastic. The only way to escape the tax is to say that content is ‘recycled’. So a fossil-fuel based material will be exempt, and a sustainable plant-based alternative will be taxed.

Likewise, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy approach also diverts manufacturers toward ‘recycled content’ (no matter how dubious the claims of some material to be recycled may be), and gives little precious incentive to invest in genuinely innovative solutions like our own .

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a common mantra in the battle against plastic pollution, but it is essential to add “replace”, too. All four approaches have their place, as the recent Breaking the Plastic Wave report published by Pew Charitable Trusts and SystemIQ makes clear. And only ‘replace’ offers a future where there is no plastic pollution.

A binding treaty between nations, which matches the ambition of global brands to reduce the amount of plastic in our everyday lives, will amplify and accelerate significant change. It has the potential to stimulate innovation and improve the health of our planet and our people, but to succeed it cannot give global credence to a ‘business as usual’ approach which obsesses about recycling at the expense of every other solution. Policymakers need to keep a clear long term goal in mind as they take decisions – a future where there is no plastic pollution at all.

Simon Hombersley is CEO of alternative plastics producer Xampla.

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