Regulation is lighting a fire under the plastic waste management ecosystem

Written by Neil Cameron, Partner at Emerald, partner of Rethinking Materials 2024. Neil joined the panel ‘Regulatory Landscape: Navigating Fast-Changing Legislation at a Local and Global Level’ with leaders from NOTPLA, DEFRA, RECOUP, GO!PHA and LORAX COMPLIANCE.

Neil Cameron speaking at Rethinking Materials 2024
Neil Cameron speaking at Rethinking Materials 2024

Once upon a time, trash was largely someone else’s problem. Before January 1, 2018, China imported over half of the world’s plastic waste, according to Nature, including 78% of America’s and 58% of Europe’s waste. Overnight, that door was slammed shut with very tightly defined exceptions that were generally never granted. Global trade flows of plastic waste plunged by 46%, sparking a scramble by governments around the world to figure out how to clean up the ever-growing heaps of scrap now piling up in their backyard.

Fast forward more than six years, and the landscape of plastic waste regulation is still very much in flux. At the highest level, the UN is now deep in negotiations over a global treaty on plastic waste, although hopes that delegates will meet a year-end deadline to produce a binding agreement are not particularly high. Interests are fractured along numerous fault lines. These include petrochemical-producing states, which argue that plastics are too useful to be curtailed and the focus should shift to behaviour and recycling; forestry states, who would like to see paper replace as much plastic as possible (this could be especially relevant to the packaging sector); countries with long coastlines who care first and foremost about plastics (especially microplastics) in the ocean; and countries that are too busy trying to manage open-pit burning of waste to worry about “first-world problems” like recycling.

Zooming into individual actors on the geopolitical stage, we see regulations range from strict to non-existent. Europe and California are at the forefront, with both places mandating combinations of bans, forced reductions and full recyclability of various types of packaging within five to 10 years—tight timelines by industry standards. These and other rules reflect a recognition that the status quo is unsustainable, especially given forecasts that use of plastics could triple globally between 2023 and 2060, according to the OECD.

Innovation can help

Neil Cameron speaking at Rethinking Materials 2024
Neil Cameron speaking at Rethinking Materials 2024

The world’s largest players in the plastics value circle, from raw materials producers like SABIC, to household brands like Nestlé, to waste processors like WM need innovation to meet the coming avalanche of regulatory requirements. A simple set of priorities can help to sharpen minds around how we handle plastic packaging (if you can’t achieve the first step, do the next one):

  • Avoid it entirely

  • Reduce its use

  • Reuse it

  • Mechanically recycle it (flake the scrap to make a similar product)

  • Chemically recycle it (break it down to its monomers and make new polymers with reused monomers and virgin polymer properties)

  • Incinerate the scrap and capture the energy

Rethinking Materials 2024 underscored our observation that there are substantial innovation and practical gaps especially between collection and re-insertion of materials in the value circle.  Fortunately, innovation can be found at every step of this hierarchy. These innovations are lowering barriers to chemical recycling and more. Many of these innovations are emerging out of a buoyant start-up community focused on solving one of the biggest problems in the shift toward a circular economy.  This is where Emerald’s core competence lies: in matching disruptors with incumbents, in the service of shifting the corporate landscape toward sustainability.

Get in touch to find out how you can get involved in Rethinking Materials 2025 as partner, speaker, exhibitor or delegate.