The plastic waste problem represents one of the most significant environmental challenges we face today. Despite this, many solutions have been ‘quick fix’ in nature, often focussing on eradicating plastic completely or implementing relatively small, albeit valuable and needed changes, when compared to the whole problem.
Whilst these solutions are well-meaning, they lack the nuanced insight into the wide-ranging use of plastic in our everyday lives - such as healthcare, construction, and automotive industries - and the breadth of positive and negative impacts associated with this. Therefore, the Birmingham Plastics Network is leading a Policy Commission to support policy strategy development and decisions in the UK with evidence-based critical thinking. We outline three areas of investigation below.
Restricting the use of harmful chemicals is an essential step in a green transition but also means a significant administrative and financial burden for UK regulators and requires sufficient consideration of how to support businesses to implement them best.Professors Andrew Dove, Fern Elsdon-Baker, and Stefan Krause - University of Birmingham
Firstly, ongoing chemical reforms that reduce our reliance on fossil-based petrochemicals will have a significant impact on the plastics industry, but recent news about the potential delay to chemical and microplastic reforms has created a mixed response in the chemical sector. On the one hand, this area needs significant improvement to make a more targeted and efficient approach; conversely, it is difficult to see a simple solution that satisfies both environmental and economic requirements. Restricting the use of harmful chemicals is an essential step in a green transition but also means a significant administrative and financial burden for UK regulators and requires sufficient consideration of how to support businesses to implement them best.
Secondly, policy and regulation discussions are not limited to plastics at their source. This week is Recycle Week, which has provided the Birmingham Plastics Network with an opportunity to reflect on recycling policy. Whilst it remains clear that consistency in collections at home and in industry is a significant puzzle piece in working towards a greener, circular future, an answer to unified collection processes across all UK constituencies still needs to be discovered. More than anything, there is a need for policy certainty for councils and industries to invest in the right technologies and solutions and achieve long-term sustainability goals.
Thirdly, the picture is even more opaque for biodegradable plastics, with the term biodegradability often misunderstood and requiring clearer definition. In our surveys conducted by YouGov with the public (2022), [i] over 50% believe that plastic labelled as ‘biodegradable’ should take less than one year to break down. With no policy or legislation limiting the use of this terminology, the current picture is much broader than this and claims of biodegradability are likely to be misleading for most consumers.
At the Birmingham Plastics Network, we know that we cannot work alone to achieve the true systemic change required to resolve the plastic waste problem in its entire lifecycle, which spans an even wider set of topics than those areas listed above. Therefore, we are prioritising collaborative working methods, such as our Policy Commission - working with partners across the plastics lifecycle to gather evidence to inform recommendations to the UK government. These recommendations will consider environmental, social, economic and political factors to ensure that future policy is well considered, evidence-based, and avoids unintended consequences.
A Policy Commission is a tried and tested method to achieving systemic change within and beyond Government through an evidence-based approach, and the University of Birmingham has a track record of delivering them successfully. Using our knowledge and input of various stakeholders from different backgrounds, we have the leverage to influence plastics policy through a systemic lens, creating impact for many beneficiaries and not just one part of society.
The Policy Commission is underway, and evidence-giving sessions have begun with a wide pool of stakeholders. A launch event is due to be held in early 2024 to share the findings and recommendations of the Commission.
[i] Bespoke surveys designed and carried out in partnership between University of Birmingham and YouGov Plc. Public survey: Total sample size = 2942 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25/03/22 – and 02/04/22, and carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+)