The tax on single-use packaging included in the draft Spanish Waste Law may contribute to changing consumer and industry behavior, but it is not a panacea.

In 1933, a team of chemists from the British company Imperial Chemical Industries synthesized a material created by accident 35 years earlier by a German scientist, but was unable to reproduce the results of their first experiment. It wasn’t until two years later that Michael Perrin managed to create the first practical method of manufacturing the baptized as polyethylene. The new compound would end up being part of the cable jacket during World War II and the hula-hoops Invented in the 50s.

Nowadays, turned into the most common plastic, this polymer is today one of the worst enemies on the planet. It is the main ingredient of bags and of many containers of single use, as well as the million bottles that humanity buys per minute, according to data from Euromonitor International published by The Guardian. Most of the waste they end up in landfills or in the environment.

In recent years, different strategies and regulations have been established to reduce and prohibit its use, but among them another practice stands out: taxation. There has been talk of taxing single-use plastics in the European Union for a long time, and Spain has decided to take the step. The Draft Law on Waste and Contaminated Soils, whose processing started this summer, raises a tax of 0.45 euros per kilogram of non-reusable plastic manufactured, imported or bought in the EU.

“Environmental taxes make it possible to internalize negative effects generated by its production on the price that consumers pay ”, explains Luis Antonio López, a researcher in environmental and energy economics at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, to the Sinc agency. In this case, the tribute would help reduce the CO emissions2, the use of resources and the generation of waste.

The main requirement for the tax it works is that cause a change in consumer and business behavior to move towards a more circular economy. The former will react when they see the cost of items they buy regularly, such as bottles of water, rise. Producers will do so in the medium term, seeking alternatives and new materials free of the fee. From then on, “the impact of the tax on final prices will be less,” says López.

Finally, the companies that use packaging to distribute their products they will look for options that do not include plastics. This strategy will allow them to identify themselves as sustainable firms and attract clients with environmental values.

However, one of the biggest risks of the tax, according to López, is that it has a greater impact on social groups with low incomes. Although the draft includes measures such as serving tap water in bars and restaurants and installing more fountains, the rate can be problematic in areas with poor quality or tasteless water.

In economic terms, the tribute could be regressive: families with fewer resources they would have to pay a higher percentage of total consumption than those with a higher overall expenditure. To avoid this, “we should think about establishing compensatory methods ”, advises the expert in economics.

In addition, upper-middle income households can more easily assimilate the price increase generated by the tax and not change their preferences. For them, the tax is not enough. For this reason also “it should limit the sale of some products that are especially harmful or try to increase consumer awareness about the impact of their decisions, ”suggests López.

From the refinery to the ‘super’

Most plastics come from a fraction of the petroleum hydrocarbons. After leaving the refinery, these compounds are subjected to processes such as polymerization and polycondensation. In a reactor, small molecules like ethylene and propylene join together to form long polymer chains.

The result is a lightweight, cheap, resistant, stable and versatile material. It is ideal for manufacturing packaging of different thicknesses, shapes, rigidity and compaction, which can also be transparent; but it is possible to decorate them. “Their properties can be regulated by combining different plastics with each other and with other materials,” he says. José Ignacio Velasco, an expert in materials engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC).

In addition to water bottles, these polymers make up many containers for preserving food: the flexible film that vacuum packages sausages and cheeses, the meat trays, fish or pre-cooked pizzas, cans of mayonnaise or ketchup.

The food containers are for single use; They cannot be reused for the same application and must be placed in the yellow container for recycling. According the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), represent the 50% of waste plastics generated on a global scale. Only in the EU were there 15.88 million tons of plastic containers in 2015. 40% was recycled. The rest, most of it ended up (and continues to end up) in landfills and in nature. Also that of Asian countries to those who are sent.

Erik Solheim, former director of UNEP, warned in one of the program reports that “Plastic is not the problem. It’s what we do with it “. The life cycle analysis of a product takes into account criteria such as design, useful life and waste management to determine its sustainability. “By doing this analysis we realize that, on many occasions, plastic solutions are the most sustainable”, they underline from EsPlásticos, a platform that brings together more than 3,000 companies in the plastics sector in Spain.

For example, making a bottle of glass instead of plastic involves the use of more raw materials and the production of more emissions in its transport because it weighs more. “Alternatives to plastic from other materials generally require much more energy to be transformed, either to make the bottle or to recycle it,” they argue from the initiative.

However, the massive use of plastics has other drawbacks apart from the environmental ones. Compounds Chemicals like phthalates and bisphenols can migrate from packaging to food and, once consumed, alter the endocrine system, child development or fertility. According A study from Newcastle University for WWF, we consume five grams of plastic a week, most of which comes from water bottles.

However, using other materials is not without risk either. Paper, cardboard, and aluminum can also cause chemicals to get into food. As indicated by the OCU, the safety of any material should be ensured before using it to manufacture containers that contain food. And for that there is a lack of specific regulation and collaboration on the part of the industry.

Alternatives to plastic

One of the options to avoid the use of plastics in the manufacture of food packaging is to resort to compostable or biodegradable materials. But they are still not very profitable and accessible. “There is less availability, variety and, in certain cases, its processing also introduces difficulties of a technical nature,” says Velasco.

Although the usefulness of bioplastics has been demonstrated for some applications, “their properties are moderate and its cost is high (both economic and social and environmental) “, warns Joaquín Martínez, researcher at the Polytechnic University of Madrid specialized in these materials.

Although they can be obtained from residues – they come from compounds such as cellulose and its derivatives and starch – “at present they are mainly produced from raw materials that can be food, such as corn or sugar cane”, indicates the scientist. What’s more, bioplastics are not always recyclable or compostable. They are also not biodegradable.

Another alternative that can contribute to reducing the use of plastics are active, functional or smart packaging. “They extend the useful life of food, exercising a complementary conservation and protection function by incorporating certain substances that interact with it and with the atmosphere that surrounds it,” explains the UPC researcher. They can include technologies such as sensors and nanomaterials.

According to Velasco, the scarce introduction of alternatives to plastic in the food industry is essentially due to an economic questionto. The application of existing ones and the development and industrialization processes of new ones are costly. “The sector is very competitive and the economic margins are very narrow.” To drive change, “you need extra stimulus,” he continues.

Waste

“The fundamental thing is to reduce the consumption of raw materials and dumping and landfills, regardless of the type of material,” says Martínez. A position shared by Velasco. They both agree that it would be better to apply a tax to all materials that end up in landfills. There is a large percentage of paper and cardboard (26%) and glass (around 32.8%) that is not recycled in Spain.

According to UNEP, to avoid plastic pollution, measures should follow the hierarchy of waste management and the principles of circular economy. In other words, be directed, in order of priority, to minimize waste generation, improve waste management systems and promote recycling and the use of recycled materials.

In addition to the fee, the preliminary draft, which transposes the objectives set out in the European directives of waste Y of single-use plastics, includes the prohibition of items such as bastoncillos, pajitas Y plastic cutlery as of 2021. As a result of the tax, the Government plans to reduce the sale of taxed items by 50% by 2026 and by 70% by 2030, in both cases compared to 2022.

The experts consulted coincide in emphasizing that applying the tribute is only one step in the right direction, but that it should not be the only one. The awareness and education of citizens about the impact of their purchases and support for research, development and technological innovation in the sector are other essential measures.

Among other areas related to the circular economy, the companies of the EsPlásticos platform work to encourage the use of recycled materials and improve the eco-design of products and recycling technologies to transform more types of waste.

The industry has committed itself, as a member of the Circular Alliance on Plastics, to ensure that Europe uses 10 million tons of recycled plastics to manufacture new items by 2025. Recycling just one ton of this material means a reduction in emissions of up to three tons of CO2.

“The most useful measure to encourage the use of recycled plastics is to force the products to contain a certain percentage of this material”, estimates Martínez. The draft law establishes that bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) must contain between 25% and 30% recycled material. A percentage that may increase in future regulations.