EU’s efforts to reduce marine litter by banning single-use plastics may lead to unintended consequences as circularity needs composite materials and single-use containers, says research professor Ali Harlin.
Everyone agrees that the world needs to reduce the use of plastics. They are based on fossil fuels and pollute the environment.
Easier said than done.
"Paperboard and plastics shouldn't be competitors, because composite materials are the most functional ones."
While problematic, plastics have also so far been the most convenient and efficient material for example for packaging food.
According to research professor Ali Harlin, fossil-based plastics’ popularity relies on three factors: cheap oil, total control of the material, and superior performance.
"This 'holy trinity' is extremely difficult to beat because one cheap raw material fits all purposes," Harlin says.
"However, there are various types of plastic with different characteristics. We don’t talk about ‘metal’ as if there was only one sort, and we shouldn’t do that with plastics either."
EU’s definition of plastics is too broad and harms the cause
Harlin is the head of Package-Heroes, a Finnish state-funded research project working to advance sustainable packaging solutions and remove roadblocks preventing their use in Finland and the EU. The ultimate goal is to stop the growth of the amount of fossil-based plastics produced.
Nonetheless, Harlin is concerned about the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD).
The directive aims to ban single-use plastics to protect the environment. However, as Harlin sees it, the directive includes several pitfalls that may undermine its laudable intentions.
The biggest problem is the definition of plastics.
"The definition of plastic as modified natural polymers is too broad, as it encompasses materials that are necessary for replacing fossil-based plastics," Harlin explains.
Recycled plastics face several problems from cost to carbon emissions
The EU has set targets for reducing the use of plastics as well as determined the method by which those targets should be reached: recycling. However, some of the regulations are in conflict.
"The EU has decided to favor recycling, but currently forbids the use of recycled plastic in many food contact materials," Harlin points out.
He estimates that in theory, up to a half of virgin plastics could be replaced with recycled ones. Recycled materials can be turned into high-quality products.
However, the use of recycled plastics still faces several problems.
"The supply of post-consumer material that is clean enough is very limited. Recycled plastics cost around 70 percent more than virgin plastics. Production is neither cost efficient nor carbon neutral," Harlin explains.
"If oil prices were raised to increase the price of virgin plastics, fuel prices would also go up, which would make it more expensive to transport biomaterials replacing oil-based plastics—and enrage consumers."
In the age of urbanization single-use packaging can be the eco-friendlier option
Harlin is a proponent of composite and multilayer materials.
"Paperboard and plastics shouldn’t be competitors because their combination is often the most functional solution. Composite materials and multilayer structures protect food the best. A single-use container must have a multilayer structure to guarantee performance, and recyclability requires layers that are easy to separate," Harlin says.
"Over 70 percent of fiber materials are recycled in the EU, while only around 20 percent of plastics are. If composite materials are banned, the total percentage of recycled materials will decrease."
Reusable food containers reduce packaging waste, but their transportation and cleaning require more energy, water and labor than single-use containers. Moreover, their adoption would require a new way to distribute food.
"Urbanization is a megatrend that won’t go away. An increasing number of people will be living alone in very small apartments, and more meals will be bought ready-made. Responding to this demand sustainably will require innovative service design."
Recycling should be motivating, easy and automated
Harlin emphasizes that the know-how for making recyclable products is already out there. The challenge lies in creating a recycling system that people want to use. The professor calls for more automation and incentives for consumers, such as a refund system.
"Recycling has to be made easy and motivating for consumers. We can’t expect consumers to identify all the different materials and sort them correctly. There are so many kinds of plastic even I can’t identify them all by their look and feel."
This means that more effort must be put in elsewhere in the recycling system.
"Automatic detection of materials would help. Such automation requires more data content, such as labels, in packaging."