How Much Innovation Potential Lies in a Ban?

Straws, dishes & similar - the EU plans to ban some of these plastic disposable products in the future. Without this change, more plastic waste will be floating in the oceans than fish in about 30 years. But is there actually a potential for change in bans? An interview with scientist Henning Wilts.

Mr. Wilts, the ban on disposable plastic articles is around the corner: Do bans actually bring the necessary push for innovation?

I hope that instead of wasting "innovative" power to figure out how we can avoid bans, we use that energy to actually think about a positive vision of plastic in the closed-loop economy. With 26 million metric tons of plastic waste produced in Europe every year, the recyclate portion of packaging is less than 10%. Nobody denies that we can do much better in that area, I think.

The closed-loop economy is not lacking in promising innovations

Henning Wilts

What can politicians, the packaging industry, retail, consumers and the recycling industry do to improve the situation?

In the past, we all just optimised our individual part of the value chain and paid very little attention to whether our actions caused problems for the other participants in the process. Therefore, it would be utterly important to have more and better coordination between all those involved. That sounds simple enough, but requires completely new processes. But if we want to have more recycling-friendly packaging, which the consumer is expected to eventually dispose of properly sorted and understand why recyclable plastic is better than disposable plastic, then the only way is to work together. This applies equally to the private and the public sector, which too often places contradictory demands on packaging.

Facts and Figures

  • Each German produces 626 kg of waste per year, resulting in 6 million metric tons of plastic waste
  • 220 kilograms of packaging waste, mostly plastic, accumulate per capita per year in Germany
  • Only 36% of plastic waste is currently being recycled
  • Every year, up to 13 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the world's oceans - equivalent to a garbage truck load being dumped into the oceans every minute

  • Today there is already a plastic waste island in the Pacific, which is 3 times as large as France with 1.6 million square kilometres
  • If nothing changes, there will be more garbage in the ocean than fish by 2050 - measured by weight
  • Plastic waste in the ocean is decomposed over time and ends up as microplastics in marine food - and thus also on our plates. The effects of microplastics on human and animal health have not yet been sufficiently researched
  • To promote sustainable use of raw materials and reduce packaging waste, three guidelines provide orientation: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

How can plastic be recycled better and in greater quantities in the future?

The proportion of recyclate will automatically increase if recycling is purposefully carried out for the quality requirements of the industry. To accomplish this, the recycling industry must again invest more in new technologies, Which has not been done enough in recent years. At the same time, however, the industry must also consider where and how it can promote the use of recyclate. The simplest way would be to reject regulations that unnecessarily require the use of primary material.

Bioplastics, compostable plastics, high-quality raw materials and the secondary market – how does the cycle succeed?

The closed-loop economy is not lacking in promising innovations. New approaches are tried out all the time. In my opinion however, we will not solve the problem with technology alone. What is currently missing is a common idea to determine which path we actually want to follow: No plastic at all, recyclable plastic, self-degradable plastic, or combustion for district heating? Consumers in particular are rightly completely unsure and do not feel like they are a part of the conversation. A common and comprehensible goal is needed - and then everyone can join forces to figure out how to reach it.

I would like the retail and wholesale industry to, first and foremost, agree on common standards for reusable transport packaging.

Henning Wilts

In order to reach this goal, what do you think would be a specific challenge for politicians, the packaging industry, retail and wholesale, consumers, and the recycling industry each?

In my opinion, the task of politicians would be to develop a clear vision for the resource-efficient use of plastics within the framework of a closed-loop economy strategy. The packaging industry needs to start thinking about which completely superfluous packaging it can to do without in the future, if it wants to avoid an onslaught of bans at some point in the future. I would like the retail and wholesale industry to, first and foremost, agree on common standards for reusable transport packaging. This affects a huge amount for which there could have been technical solutions for a long time, if everyone stopped insisting on their own system. On the waste side, stakeholders are asked to develop proposals for a fee system for packaging that takes into account ecological criteria. Those who prefer resource-light packaging solutions should pay less and vice versa. But it should not just be about recyclability: instead, creating the same quality with less packaging should also be rewarded. I am not fond of relinquishing responsibility to the individual consumer, but I would like a more conscious handling of packaging material: to dispense with unnecessary packaging, to bundle online orders, and to conscientiously separate and dispose waste. And I would like more people to approach manufacturers directly when they get upset over nonsensical packaging.

About ... Henning Wilts

Dr Henning Wilts is head of the Closed-Loop Economy Department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. He is motivated by the gigantic amount of 350 million metric tons of waste we produce each year in Germany. Together with companies, NGOs and politicians, he tries to develop and implement visions of a resource-efficient closed-loop economy. www.wupperinst.org

© Portrait image: Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy