Rethinking Plastics

Solutions exist, but how can we make them the "new normal?"

My colleague Marek went to Brussels to discuss the plastic problem and innovative solutions. Here's what they talked about:

This time it wasn't me who attended an event, it was my beloved colleague Marek, MIWA's social impact expert and strategic advisor. But it's still me writing an article about it. From what I understood, various experts from various fields met in Brussels in a talk show to rethink plastics. There were speakers from the government, academia and business who are all involved in the reduction of plastics. The aim of this gathering was to show that solutions exist and to discuss how to make them the "new normal." So what did they come up with?

In order to answer that question, I decided to interview my colleague Marek who joined the discussion as one of the speakers on MIWA's behalf.

Most of us know that we have a plastic problem by now, so there's no need to get into this. What I would like to talk about though, is that during the talkshow you mentioned that "recycling is not a sufficient solution." Can you explain to us why?

When it comes to plastic packaging, only around 10% is recycled worldwide. We are doing a bit better in the EU, but it is still only around 30%. These low numbers are caused by the fact that not all materials can be recycled. Also, not everybody recycles. If we want to achieve high recycling rates, recycling has to be simple and available, which is not always the case. Take the coffee to-go cup for example- usually there are no recycling bins where you could toss the plastic lid as you go. People also lack the economic motivation for recycling. Deposit schemes are a way to enhance motivation, but they only work for beer bottles here in the Czech Republic...Therefore, waste prevention is clearly a better solution; if we don't create the waste, we don't have to think about what to do with it later on. Now it's time to search for new solutions and distribution systems that will work on the principles of prevention.

That makes sense. Are there any solutions yet?

Well, MIWA, of course. :-) No seriously, there are, but only a few since this approach is still quite new. To give you an example, in the talk show, there were speakers from e.g. Repack- reusable envelopes for goods ordered online, and Cupclub- a deposit system for to-go coffee cups. There is also the Svenska system- reusable crates for food distributors and retailers operating in Sweden.

You are saying that there are only a few solutions. How can they become more mainstream?

From the business perspective, it has been, is and always will be about money. Therefore, businesses need to see that the sustainable solutions with some strong thought behind (e.g. elimination of plastic packaging) make sense economically. Most people and businesses think that sustainability is a topic only for the non-profit sector, which is not true. Sustainability can be profitable too.

From the customer's point of view, it is all about convenience. Therefore, the new solutions must offer the same or even better comfort for customers than what is available with the existing way of shopping or consuming in general. This means that the new solutions must come up with a good infrastructure- when we want people to return plastic bags or containers, we need to give them an easily-accessible collection point, preferably right in front of their door. Something as the good old milkman service...

What is the role of the EU or legislation in general here? Can they help somehow?

Sure, the governments can impose economic instruments, which will motivate everyone to switch to the solutions with a better environmental impact- e.g. taxes on single-use packaging. There are already some examples, after all, like when you are charged for the plastic bags in shops. The reason for these measures is not only to motivate the consumers, but also to take into consideration the actual expenses, which means to include the negative externalities in the final price too. Apart from that, governments play an important role in research and development and also raising awareness and education.

...

I am thankful to Marek for his interesting insights and all I can do now is hope that there will be more talks like this one. I also hope that we will go from words to actions and that soon, the new Rethink Plastics solutions will start to grow. They must be so great, awesome and convenient that they will be used on a massive scale.

See you next time!

T.

Bio:

Tereza is MIWA's partnership manager. As such, she encounters many interesting people and organizations and she participates in various events. She loves traveling and occasional writing. You can check out her personal blog Teresita's. She worked for the United Nations and is interested in responsible consumption and lifestyle.

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