Most people want to do their bit for the planet, and whilst some will go the extra mile to reduce their environmental impact, most do not have the time, energy, budget or inclination to commit fully to the lifestyle changes required to lead an environmentally friendly life. One of the major issues currently facing the planet is plastic waste.

Plastic waste is difficult to avoid – so much so that some of those able to lead a plastic-free life have monetised their achievement through book deals or Instagram advertising. Making it easier and cheaper to avoid single-use plastics by encouraging retailers to stop selling it - or goods packaged in it – appears to be the most effective way forward, and arguably the best way to do this seems to be through preventative laws.

Such preventative laws have already proven highly successful in the UK, in reducing the number of single-use plastic carrier bags used by customers. Since 5 October 2015, large retailers in England have been required by law to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. Within the first year of this law change, the sales of such carrier bags from England's main supermarkets reduced by more than 95%, with overall use of single-use plastic carrier bags dropping by 59%. Single-use plastic carrier bags have continued to decline in popularity (accelerated by an increase in cost on 21 May 2021 to 10p per bag), together with a rise in popularity of bags-for-life, or tote bags. The law change on complimentary single-use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets led to a nationwide change in shopping habits and a huge reduction in single-use plastic usage.

The English government went on, in 1 October 2020, to ban the supply or sale of single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers to end-users and businesses in England, unless for exempt purposes (such as use in care homes or nurseries). Recently, 1 April 2022, the UK government introduced a plastic packaging tax, charging £200/tonne of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic manufactured or imported into the UK (including packaging on goods which are imported). The impact of this on the materials used for packaging is yet to be seen, but it seems likely that there will be an increase in the use of recycled plastic or alternative materials for packaging products manufactured or imported into the UK.

On a larger scale, the EU recently implemented a Directive on single-use plastics, which aims to prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. Single-use plastic products cannot be placed on the markets of EU Member States if sustainable alternatives are easily available and affordable. This applies to various single-use plastic products, including cotton bud sticks, cutlery and straws. The UK government aims to follow suit, with plans to ban single-use plastic plates, cutlery, polystyrene cups and food and beverage containers. The UK government additionally plans to enable mandatory labelling on packaging to help consumers dispose of these items correctly.

In the US, a variety of cities and states have already enacted some form of plastics ban. However, there is currently no federal legislation in the US tackling single-use plastics, and consequently the laws and ordinances that do exist vary from city to city and state to state. A bill entitled "Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act" is currently with the Senate for review, but commentators report it may not be passed at the federal level for a number of years. In Canada, draft regulations prohibiting certain single-use plastics have been published for public comment, with the intent to finalise the regulations and bring a ban into force as quickly as possible and as early as late 2022.

Encouragingly, a global approach to tackling plastic waste is on the cards, with more than 70 leading businesses and financial institutions calling, in a formal statement, for a legally binding UN treaty on plastic pollution.(8) This statement was made in view of the Fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) which took place this year from 28 February to 2 March.

UN Member States were urged to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee at UNEA 5.2 to develop an ambitious international, legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that:

  • Includes both upstream and downstream policies, aiming to: keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment, reduce virgin plastic production and use, and decouple plastic production from the consumption of fossil resources;
  • Sets a clear direction to align governments, businesses and civil society behind a common understanding of the causes of plastic pollution and a shared approach to address them. For companies and investors, this creates a level playing field and prevents a patchwork of disconnected solutions, while setting the right enabling conditions to make a circular economy work in practice and at scale; and
  • Provides a robust governance structure to ensure countries' participation and compliance, with common definitions as well as harmonised standards applicable to all. This facilitates investments to scale innovations, infrastructures, and skills in the countries and industries most in need of international support.

A UN Environment Assembly resolution (decision) was passed on 2 March 2022 entitled 'End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument'. The consequence of this resolution is that a global treaty tackling plastic waste will be negotiated and put in place by the end of 2024.

It is hoped that the laws that have been or are to be put in place will reduce single-use plastic reliance, with more recycled plastics and environmentally friendly plastic alternatives being used. Recent years have seen a rise in innovation in the areas of plastic processing and recycling, as well as biopolymers and other plastic alternatives. The potential offered by these innovative methods appears to be reflected in patent filing trends reported by the European Patent Office (see our accompanying article "Polymers: Transition to a Sustainable Future").

Preventative laws tackling single-use plastic waste as well policies aimed at providing a fully circular plastics economy promise to make a positive environmental impact, and to create a gap in the market for recycled plastic products and plastic alternatives. This is not only good news for the planet, but also for polymer innovation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.