Under joint pressure from the scientific community and public opinion, the European Union adopted its landmark Single-Use Plastics Directive on June 12th, 2019. The ambitious text speaks to Ursula von der Leyen’s policy commitments on environmental matters, and the Directive will gradually become part of the national legal frameworks of the EU Member States. This process has already been carried out in France, where a range of single-use plastic objects are now banned from sale. From carbon footprints to health consequences and marine pollution, how can we now capitalise on reliable alternatives?
Since the 1950s, the growth of plastics has continued at an exponential rate
To describe the trend of plastics production worldwide, you only need to use a word the whole of Europe has been familiar with since Covid-19 began to spread: exponential. While the planet produced only a few million tonnes of plastic in 1950, this figure could reach the highly symbolic half-billion mark in the years to come.
Single-use plastics are by far the main culprits for this dizzying rise in plastic output. According to France’s Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (OPECST), 35.9% of plastics production was linked to the packaging sector in 2015. That far exceeds building and construction (16%), textiles (14.5%) and consumer goods (10.3%).
French and European officials are now hard put to feign ignorance in the face of public opinion shaped by images of the “sixth continent” of plastic sitting at the heart of the North Pacific. Between 80 and 85% of the litter identified in the marine environment today is made of plastic, according to EU data. With 85% of the public in favour of banning single-use plastic products and packaging, the government can even boast of enjoying unanimous support, at least this once.
Plastics are a major contributor to climate change
However, plastic pollution is only the tip of the iceberg. All while escaping public notice, plastics also bring with them the less visible, but equally worrying, threat of climate change. Produced from oil, natural gas, and coal – three fossil fuels whose use mankind is attempting to limit – plastics are powerful emitters of greenhouse gases and, as such, actively contribute to global warming.
To provide some measure of scale, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that, in 2016, plastics production were responsible for 2 billion tonnes of emitted CO2. The fact the two main producers of plastic are China and the United States, whose factories run largely on fossil fuels, is a major contributor to this catastrophic carbon footprint.
The insurmountable challenge of plastic recycling
Another reason for the widespread hostility towards plastics: their recycling rate is extremely low. If nothing is done, plastic waste will continue to pile up inexorably until the fossil fuels used to produce it are exhausted. OPECST, which has been conducting research into the lifecycles of plastics produced, claims only 9% of the plastic waste generated between 1950 and 2015 has been recycled.
By contrast, 79% of the overall amount of plastic produced has wound up in landfills or released into the environment, 12% has been incinerated, and the remainder is still in use. Technical reasons are primarily to blame for this rate being so low, as a large proportion of plastics are not recyclable. As long as oil prices remain relatively low, it is also more cost-effective to create plastic rather than recycle it.
In this area, at least, the European Commission is apparently showing a certain level of initiative, insisting that “by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market (must) be reused or easily recycled”. That objective has notably been integrated into the circular economy action plan promoted by the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, France’s Thierry Breton.
In France, Law 2020-105 “on fighting waste and on the circular economy”, implemented in February 2020, sets the target for recycled plastic at 100% by 2025 – compared with 26% today.
And yet, according to Nathalie Gontard, a researcher at France’s National institute for agricultural research (INRA) and a leading expert on the issue of plastic packaging, this target is an “illusion”. Gontard instead calls for policies “favouring materials that are truly biodegradable, such as wood, paper, cardboard, or even materials that are truly recyclable, such as glass and metal”. Above all, she urges a drastic reduction in the production of plastics.
Capitalising on reliable alternatives to glass
Meeting the needs of consumers, businesses, or restaurateurs, all while meeting the EU’s climate targets, is a complex balance to strike. And yet some of the foremost alternative packaging options, such as paper packaging, seem to be acquitting themselves quite admirably. A new life cycle assessment (LCA) study published this month by Ramboll, certified by the independent agency TUV and commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), demonstrates that single-use, paper-based packaging for quick-service restaurants will always have a smaller carbon footprint than reusable plastic tableware.
While these results may seem counter-intuitive, the study relies on a pinpointed analysis of the energy used in the washing and drying process of multiple-use plastic products. Furthermore, the paper industry can also point to excellent results in terms of recycling, with a recycling rate of 85.6% making it a strong contributor to the circular economy. As EPPA explains, the new study “shows that reusables can carry significant environmental costs which are often forgotten, and that single-use food packaging is preferable for the environment, public health, and the achievement of EU Green Deal goals”.
Conversely, some alternatives which are sometimes seen as promising run into issues when confronted with the scientific literature. While it might seem tempting, a widespread return to glass would not result in a very favourable carbon balance. A comparative study conducted in 2008 and contrasting the use of glass jars and plastic bottles for baby products showed the use of plastic was more environmentally friendly compared to glass. This is because glass, which is much heavier than plastic, generates much greater CO2 emissions – between a quarter and a third higher – than plastic in the transportation phase of its life cycle. Another study on soft drinks showed similar results, again holding plastics to be the preferred choice over glass.
If the move away from plastics is urgent, so is the large-scale development of viable and environmentally responsible alternatives – a real challenge for the countries of the European Union.