Rethinking the future of plastics

Plastic pollution is a key environmental challenge today, calling for a new global agreement and sustainable solutions. Standards for plastics enjoy a privileged status in making this happen. 

Few minutes to read
By Rick Gould
Published on

On 2 March, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, senior representatives from 175 countries backed a ground-breaking resolution to stop plastic pollution. This will result in a legally binding, international agreement by the end of 2024, aiming to make all plastics sustainable.  

Plastics, especially single-use plastics, have often made international headlines. And with good reason. According to the United Nations, the world and its oceans are being overrun by plastics. So much so, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports, that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish

Although plastic-strewn oceans get most attention, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) points out that plastics in soil threaten human health and food security. Last December, the FAO published a striking report, Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: a call for action, which described in detail how a multitude of agricultural plastics, especially microplastics, find their way into the food chain. 

Plastic by numbers 

So how large is the problem? Plastics have been around since about 1950 and, that year, its production resulted in about two million tonnes (MT) of plastic pollution. By 2020, the exponential growth in plastic production increased that figure to about 400 MT. At this rate, plastic production is expected to double by 2040 and increase by 2.5 times by 2050. Unless we change how we make and manage plastics, the problem of plastic pollution will keep on growing. 

In theory, plastics should be readily recycled or at least reused. Yet, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), less than 20 % of all plastics are recycled, leaving more than 80 % of plastics at large in the environment. The OECD, in turn, has characterized the global market for plastics as dysfunctional because of the growing mountain of plastic waste and very low rates of recovery, reuse and recycling. 

The life cycle of plastics also contributes to global warming. According to the 2021 UN report From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, plastics contributed to about 4 % of global warming in 2015. This is expected to reach 15 % by 2050, threatening our aims to reach the targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. 

The world and its oceans are being overrun by plastics. 

Five African women walk across the barren landscape carrying water tanks on their backs.
Thai women picking rice in flooded paddy field.

When considered in the context of the recent Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the IPCC’s dire predictions for climate change impacts if we don’t act now, the unconstrained growth in single-use plastics presents a massive threat, but also a huge opportunity, if we address it through better design, reuse and recycling of plastics.  

Towards a circular economy 

The UN’s legally binding agreement to counter the extreme environmental impacts and risks from plastics took place two weeks before Global Recycling Day and aims to counter the multiple risks of plastics. The UN asserts that it will address the whole life cycle of plastics, requiring plastics that are designed for reuse and recycling, signalling an end to single-use plastics. In simple terms, the UN agreement aims to transform the life cycle of plastics from a linear model to a circular one.  

Standards are critical in putting an end to the world’s throw-away economy. “ISO standards are enablers and could even be a driver for new markets in a forthcoming circular economy,” says Dr Achim Ilzhöfer, the Global Circular Economy Manager for Covestro AG and Chair of the group of standards developers in ISO responsible for the environmental aspects of plastics.  

Plastics are many and diverse, and the methods of production as complex as the markets they serve. This is where standardization can play an important role, specifying characteristics for plastics and their supply chains to make them sustainable. “ISO standards could specify on an international level how information between value chain partners might be exchanged better, while protecting intellectual property, and how material use could be moved away from a linear to a circular economy,” he adds.  

The same applies to material recovery and recycling technologies. ISO standards and technical reports are well placed to promote the development of specific material recycling streams and best available technologies on a global basis. “The role of ISO standardization is to catalyse markets and connect loose ends to make economies globally more efficient and sustainable,” explains Ilzhöfer. 

As a manager responsible for the circular economy for a polymers manufacturer, Ilzhöfer appreciates the benefits of standardization. “From the beginning of my scientific career, I’ve been able to see how standards make life easier between our suppliers, ourselves and our customers. Purely from a consumer perspective, they offer the chance to compare, in a standardized and credible way, which products are more sustainable,” he affirms.  

The life cycle of plastics also contributes to global warming. 

Multi-colored plastic flakes at a recycling center. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

As both a practitioner in the plastics sector and a developer of International Standards, Ilzhöfer is motivated to find solutions and promote the standardization of sustainable production and consumption of plastics. “ISO standards can provide solutions to critical challenges, such as the improper handling of plastic waste and its consequent environmental impacts, for instance in the area of microplastics,” he clarifies.

Solutions in standards

Calls for a more circular plastics economy, for instance, include proposals for improved standards on issues ranging from recyclability and recycled content of plastics to biodegradability and reusability. Ilzhöfer can point to numerous ISO standards that have fostered sustainability in plastics. “ISO 15270:2008, Plastics – Guidelines for the recovery and recycling of plastics waste, is one example. This standard sets the framework for the development of further standards and specifications on plastics waste recovery, including recycling – a way to close the loop,” he explains. 

Ilzhöfer and his peers within ISO working groups also aim to develop further standards to catalyse sustainable plastics development and use. To increase recycling rates, we need to improve the collection and separation of plastics, and hence the identification of plastics in products arriving on the waste markets,” describes Ilzhöfer.  

 

Standards are critical in putting an end to the world’s throw-away economy. 

Standards in the area of design for recycling, track-and-trace solutions and waste management are the basis for an ecologically and economically viable recycling phase. Additionally, Ilzhöfer is also certain that the standardization of waste-based feedstocks for different recycling technologies will immediately support the global market development for increasing the rate of recycling. 

“Since the first recovery and recycling standard in 2008, new, more efficient chemical recycling processes have been developed. From here onwards, further standardization will support the global implementation of recycling facilities to increase the recycling rate of plastics,” he concludes. 

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