The Case for Sharing the Costs and Burdens of True Plastics Circularity
Procrastination may not be a crime, but it is anything but a virtue in a world starting to choke on the excessive amount of plastic waste released into its waterways and landfills at unsustainable rates that now pose a serious existential threat to the plant’s long-term well-being and, in turn, its capacity for self-rejuvenation.
With dire predictions about the world’s oceans containing more plastics than fish by mid-century, the so-called tipping point for completely reversing the environmental damage caused by discarded plastic products of all types could well have in fact been breached already, leaving damage limitation and mitigation as the more realistic objective.
But that too may become unachievable without some drastic actions by the world’s largest and richest economies to create a viable circular plastics economy that will limit the production of virgin plastic products from fossil fuels and, where possible, curtail the use of plastics—particularly single-use plastics—to products for which there is no viable packaging alternative.
It’s become a common refrain to say that not all packaging is created equal, which is often a pretext to demonize all things plastic as being inherently incompatible with the Circular Economy principles and fundamentals.
But simply removing all existing plastic packaging from the global consumer economy will neither repair the damage already done, nor would it alleviate the continuing strain on earth’s other natural resources used to produce other types of packaging materials.
The real problem with making plastics circularity work is that not all plastics are created equal, which is at the heart of the Conference Board of Canada’s timely new report titled Bagging Capital: Attracting Private Investments in Canada’s Plastic Recycling Industry.
There are currently seven different broad types of plastic packaging used for consumer food and non-food products, graded from #1 to #7 resin identification codes that in a perfect world would help direct each piece of plastic waste into a proper recycling stream.
Alas, in the absence of an efficient multi-stream recycling infrastructure in place, plastics circularity will continue to be an elusive goal, a cause without the means to support it.
And support it we must, given the dire environmental woes wreaking havoc on countries far and wide with freakish new weather patterns and other once-in-a-lifetime natural calamities occurring every couple of weeks.
While Canadian businesses and consumers have been good at declaring their earnest support for greater packaging sustainability, and better participation in recycling and other waste diversion initiatives that drive it, the numbers suggest a less cheerful reality.
According to the Conference Board report, “Over three million tonnes of plastic waste are produced in Canada annually: only nine per cent is recycled.
“We can do better,” the report pleads, with a cautionary warning about the massive capital costs of overhauling our existing plastic recycling industry characterized by “fragmentation, volatility, and an uneven playing field.”
As the report states, “The capital required for infrastructure, technology, and the growth of firms that will bring these (recycling) attributes to fruition will cost billions.
“For instance, diverting 90 per cent of plastic waste from landfills in Canada by 2030 is estimated to require between $4.6 billion and $8.3 billion in facility investments.
“With government coffers running extraordinary deficits, the infusion of substantive private capital in plastic recycling will be instrumental,” the board report says, proposing its own set of urgent talking points to address:
- Who will invest in Canada’s plastic recycling industry?
- What forms of investments will be made?
- What segments of the plastic recycling industry do private investors have an appetite for?
If Canada is to have an effective recycling system that truly supports plastics circularity, the time to have those questions answered must surely be now.