Can legislation unlock a circular plastics economy?

Clear and robust legislation is vital if the fragmented plastics economy is to find a sustainable pathway – the UN treaty on plastic pollution will play a central role

3 minute read

Plastic’s versatility has driven rapid growth in its use, even as its negative environmental impacts have become the subject of intense public debate. Global plastic waste generation more than doubled between 2000 and 2019, to 353 million tonnes.

Addressing plastic pollution will require interventions from a broad range of actors. However, legislation has a central role to play in defining the rules of the game and incentivising change.

In our report, Legislation and the circular plastics economy, we explore the opportunities for legislative intervention, and examine what the shape and impact of a UN treaty on plastic pollution could be. Fill out the form for a complimentary copy and read on for a quick introduction.

Why is legislation on plastics needed?

Plastics markets are deeply fragmented. That makes it extremely challenging for individual companies to address the need to deliver a circular plastics economy. Without clear legislation, firms aiming to develop more sustainable products can quickly be outcompeted by firms that prioritise market share or short-term profit.

What’s more, while many firms have good visibility of their own activities, the long value chain from feedstock to disposal makes it hard for players to understand their true footprint. The issues to be addressed are complex and sometimes conflicting, with no easy answers. For instance, which is more pressing: addressing plastic waste, improving food preservation or reducing net greenhouse gas emissions?

How can legislation help?

Properly framed legislation can set a level for permitted standards. By putting a price on ‘bad’ outcomes and incentivising ‘good’ ones, it can protect firms from competition based purely on cost.

At the same time, mandating firms’ responsibilities for their entire value chain can ensure they act in alignment with the societies in which they are embedded. Action has already been taken by countries and cities around the world, as well as by the UN. But much more can be done.

Where can legislators intervene in the plastics value chain

Legislative opportunities exist for targeted interventions at every stage of the value chain:

  • Plastic feedstock: Recycled content targets; virgin plastic levies; bio-feedstock requirements.
  • Application conversion: Single use bans; extended producer responsibility.
  • Consumer use and reuse: Environmental labelling mandates; deposit return schemes; tipping and littering fines.
  • Disposal and recycling: Collection rate targets; recyclability targets; food content authorisations; packaging and landfill taxes or bans; carbon taxes; waste import/export bans or restrictions.

Effective legislation should target both producers and consumers, to help create a more circular plastics economy in which all stakeholders play their part.

How can the UN treaty on plastic pollution change things?

In March this year, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, representatives from 175 nations endorsed an historic resolution to end plastic pollution. Negotiations are underway to forge an international agreement by the end of 2024.

The treaty will use transparency as a tool to drive actions, providing common definitions and mandating national action plans and reporting. Importantly, the aim is to create a binding instrument, implying some degree of punishment for non-compliance. However, the treaty will recognise national circumstances and capabilities, with richer countries supporting capacity building in poorer ones.

What does the future hold for plastics?

As a key coordination tool, international, national and sub-national regulations will play a vital role in addressing the negative environmental impacts of the plastics value chain. However, the necessary change will need to be delivered by stakeholders, via partnerships, investment in new technologies and exploration of new business models.

Get a closer look at the role of legislation in the circular plastics economy

The full report examines the flow of new regulations and targets and sets out the full range of opportunities for legislators to intervene in plastic value chains. It also explores plans for a UN plastic treaty in more detail, including a timeline – and the key debates to watch. Fill in the form at the top of the page for your complimentary copy.