A historic moment was marked in 2023 in Paris, France, as United Nations delegates from 180 countries convened to discuss a treaty to end global plastic pollution. In early June 2023, it was announced that these delegates had taken the first step towards a legally binding treaty to regulate plastics that could come into effect by 2025. With core elements of the treaty tentatively agreed on, delegates are moving forward to develop a first draft of the treaty by the end of this year.
These efforts by the UN are the latest in policy pushes, both national and international, to better address the world's increasing consumption of plastics and creation of plastic waste. For example, just prior to the start of UN negotiations on the plastic treaty, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft of their "National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution". This coincides with the establishment of a new White House Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) on Plastic Pollution and a Circular Economy that will coordinate federal efforts on plastic pollution. On releasing this draft strategy on plastic pollution, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan commented, "Plastic pollution negatively impacts our environment and public health with underserved and overburdened communities hit hardest. As a global leader in the efforts to address these challenges and pave the way for the future, we must combat plastic pollution from every angle and prevent it at every step of the plastic lifecycle."
Meanwhile, in Europe, some governments are going a step further by limiting the use of single-use plastics. From July 2023, the Netherlands will require businesses to charge extra for single-use plastics like containers, cups used for food/drink, disposable cutlery, and plates and to use environmentally friendly alternatives, like biodegradable or compostable packaging. Going a step further, the UK announced earlier this year that single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers will be banned from October 2023.
These government regulations are an important driver encouraging the progression to greater sustainability across the polymer industry. However, they are by no means the only market driver. Retailers and brands are another major entity influencing sustainable polymer development, whose internal pledges drive demand for more sustainable polymer packaging and alternatives.
The sustainability targets of the six largest FMCG companies, as well as their progress and activities towards these targets. Source: IDTechEx
This demand from the major end-users of single-use packaging encourages the development of sustainable packaging alternatives, which are detailed in IDTechEx's "Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033" report. It also encourages players upstream on the packaging value chain, like chemical and polymer companies, to set their own goals for sustainable polymer production. For example, in early 2023, SABIC set a target to manufacture 1 million metric tons annually of its TruCircle plastic, a brand of plastic containing recycled content, by 2030. "Driving circularity for plastics will require a rapid transformation of the entire value chain, which is only possible through collective action, innovation, and collaboration across the industry and ecosystem of waste management," SABIC CEO Abdulrahman Al-Fageeh said. "Therefore, we are working hard with downstream and upstream partners to accelerate this process."
It is also important to highlight the importance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and the public. These groups are applying upwards pressure on brands and retailers to increase their sustainability, and this pressure continues to flow through the supply chain to encourage sustainability at all levels.
Still, it is likely that governmental regulation, monitoring, and enforcement will play the most significant role in pushing polymer producers and packaging companies to increase their usage of sustainable materials. The impact of legislation is especially relevant for the chemical recycling industry, whose progress and outlook has been analyzed in IDTechEx's "Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2023-2033" report. The industry is looking to encourage the usage of chemically recycled plastics in end-products, and to accomplish this, they need governments to recognize the contribution of chemical recycling towards the sustainability of products. Most petrochemical companies favor the mass balance approach, but there is criticism and concerns about companies using "creative accounting" with this approach to "greenwash" their materials or products. There is also a broader debate about the sustainability of chemical recycling with regards to its environmental impact.
As such, government recognition of chemical recycling will be an important factor to monitor for the trajectory of this industry. Recent steps in this direction include the publication of a topic sheet on chemical recycling by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UK government opening a consultation on the potential adoption of a mass balance approach for chemically recycled plastic in the Plastic Packaging Tax.
With policies on plastic recycling and waste (like the above) rolling out, pressure will increase on materials companies and major brands to increase their sustainable material usage. IDTechEx expects this to fuel the growth of the sustainable polymer market and the development of the circular plastic economy.