The dilemma of reusable plastics

The EU Parliament and Council are currently debating the Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). Though the broad goals of the proposed legislation have gained universal support, subsequent amendments are proving far more contentious. The primary concern is around the push for reusable packaging – a move which might inadvertently bolster plastic use, taking a toll on the environment.

The PPWR’s underlying implication is an increase in plastic production and consumption. Such a move starkly contrasts with the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, both of which prioritise sustainability and reducing plastics’ environmental impacts.

Recyclable vs. reusable

A recent study commissioned by the European Trade Body, FEFCO, sheds light on a critical aspect of the debate. Contrary to common perception, recyclable packaging, especially corrugated alternatives, outperforms reusable counterparts on several environmental indicators. The study explicitly reveals that a reusable plastic crate would need a minimum of 63 reuses to make its environmental impact lesser than a corrugated option. Given the life cycle and wear-tear of crates, reaching this number is a tall order.

The amendments on the table advocate for reusable packaging. Yet, concrete evidence to support the environmental benefit of this directive is absent. Furthermore, initial forecasts indicate a potential spike in plastic consumption, which could mean millions more tonnes of plastic packaging by 2030.

For asset managers, who are acutely aware of the delicate balance between economic progress and sustainable practices, this proposed trajectory is concerning. It’s not just about the environment; it’s about aligning investments with public sentiment and regulatory direction. The public overwhelmingly favours a reduction in plastic waste, a sentiment echoed in the EU’s Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan.

The toxicity of recycling: An unpleasant truth

Greenpeace USA’s report from earlier this year delivered a rather sobering verdict on recycling plastics. It concludes that recycling processes exacerbate the toxicity of plastics. Graham Forbes, the Global Plastics Campaign Lead, stated, “The plastics industry—including fossil fuel, petrochemical, and consumer goods companies—continues to put forward plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution crisis. But this report shows that the toxicity of plastic increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it’s clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production.” This bold statement reinforces the broader global narrative, which is pivoting away from plastics in favour of more sustainable alternatives.

The future of packaging: A material matter

For asset managers, the ongoing debate on the PPWR holds significant implications. With an apparent disconnect between proposed amendments and internationally recognised environmental frameworks, there’s an impending risk of misaligned investments.

Materials such as bioplastics, hemp-based packaging, and mushroom packaging are both environmentally benign and scalable, making them a prime focus for investment. Coupled with cutting-edge waste management solutions that prioritise composting and biodegradation, these packaging options ensure minimal environmental footprints. 

As consumer awareness grows and regulatory bodies prioritise sustainability, demand for green packaging solutions is set to soar. Asset managers, by directing investments towards these forward-thinking initiatives, stand to benefit from both appreciating asset values and the satisfaction of championing a sustainable future.

 

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