Sustainable Plastics: Oxymoronic Greenwash, or the Face of the Future?
I love it when I end up in the middle of chunky debates where people hold starkly polarised views – and hold them ever so passionately!
On Friday last week, I was giving a talk at a conference organised by Plastics Europe on the future of the plastics industry, and there was a great debate about the role of the industry in building a more sustainable Europe.
Plastics Europe has done a great job getting its members to lift their sights. It’s campaigning for zero plastic waste to landfill by 2020; it already has a strong emphasis on progressive carbon management, and is running an important initiative on marine plastic litter. Marine litter has now reached horrendous levels, not just in terms of visible litter on the surface of the oceans, but the increasingly scary build-up of microscopic levels of pollution in the world’s oceans.
Plastics Europe has run its PolyTalk sessions for the last 3 years specifically to surface lively debates about all these critical issues.
Plastics is an industry caught between a pretty wretched legacy from an environmental point of view (particularly in terms of the build-up of toxins in the environment generally), and an increasingly inspiring approach to the role of sustainability enhancing plastics in construction, healthcare, agriculture, packaging, electronics, energy and the automotive industry. (To get a sense of what that “innovation pipeline” looks like, have a glance either at Plastics Europe’s “Visions in Polymers” or its “Partner in Sustainable Development” document. (http://www.plasticseurope.org/)
The EU’s Environment Commissioner, Jan Potochnik, gave an excellent presentation, focussing in particular on the EU’s “Resource Efficiency Roadmap” and its new waste management strategy. This is the first time I’d met him, and I was really impressed.
But there were no easy answers on offer – and some of the debates (about transparency or the “precautionary principle” or the role of “sound science”) seemed to be stuck in some kind of time warp. Axel Singhofen (Policy Advisor to the Greens at the European Parliament) eloquently berated the industry for still being excessively defensive, endlessly delaying the phase-out timetable for some of the most problematic compounds.
My bit was to bang the drum about the importance of business/NGO collaborations, to establish the common ground and build real trust, even on tricky things like risk assessment, definitions for toxicity, radical decarbonisation and so on.
I’m still convinced that NGOs have a big role to play here – but I worry sometimes. I think we ourselves often find a solutions-focussed dialogue as hard as business does. And sometimes we’re not too good at understanding exactly what innovation offers us today, on waste-to-energy technology, for instance.
As I discovered during the conference, all the countries we usually think of as “the greenest” in Europe, (Switzerland, the Scandinavians, Germany, The Netherlands and so on) are today entirely comfortable with modern waste-to-energy technologies. This includes the use of plastics (for materials that cannot currently be recycled), recovering the calorific value in plastic waste either through state-of-the-art small-scale incineration plants or more advanced gasification plants.
By contrast, our major NGOs here in the UK are still implacably hostile to such technologies, fighting any new proposals (either nationally or locally) with the same tactics used over decades to oppose mass-burn incineration plants.
But things have moved on technologically, and we urgently need to evolve a different approach to the whole waste-to-energy debate if we’re going to drag ourselves off the floor of the league table for percentage of waste diverted from landfill in major EU countries.