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What to do about plastics: An interview with Rachel Meidl

I like counterintuitive thinking—and so, apparently, does Rachel Meidl. I was therefore pleased when she agreed to speak with me about the growing problems related to plastic waste.

Scott led McKinsey's Oil & Gas Practice in North America and Europe, and coled the Global Energy and Materials sector and the Sustainability Practice.

Meidl is the fellow in energy and environment in the Center for Energy Studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. Since the early 1990s, she has specialized in issues related to hazardous waste and the environment. Meidl served in the US government in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. She has also worked with the US military and the private sector, as the director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council. In those capacities, she saw the challenges of global waste management first-hand and became interested in the domestic, international, and trade issues related to upstream and end-of-life management of a range of products, including plastics. She has a doctorate in law and public policy and an extensive academic background in zoology, applied environmental science, and management.

Over the last five years, plastics has risen up the environmental agenda—and for good reason. Here’s just one sobering statistic: 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans every year. In recent years, my colleagues at McKinsey have also become interested in the subject, with research ranging from how the future of plastics could affect the chemical industry to examining how plastics make it into the ocean.

Meidl has given these topics a great deal of thought. Because her preference is to take a lifecycle perspective—that is, measuring all environmental effects from production through disposal—her conclusions can be unorthodox to the point of controversial.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation, which she has approved.

Nyquist: As you delve deeper into the topic of plastics and the environment, what are you learning?

Meidl: What I’m learning can be categorized broadly under the categories of knowledge deficiencies and data gaps. For example, we have a limited understanding of the health impacts of plastics in waterways, and of the eco-toxicology of macro- micro- and nano-plastics. There is a lack of standardized sampling, testing, measuring, and analytical methodologies. There is a need to develop exposure modeling to properly assess the hazards and validated risk assessments to evaluate and understand the interaction of plastics with other stresses in the environment. Currently, it is difficult to conduct studies and draw valid, reproducible comparisons because there is no globally standardized approach. If we want to improve marine and human health, we need to create harmonized international methods. Otherwise, we cannot fully comprehend the effects of plastics on the entire ecosystem, including below the ocean’s surface, or in fresh water systems.

I’m also seeing a lack of understanding of the unintended consequences and tradeoffs of plastic alternatives. This is important if we want to replace or supplement plastics with options that are better for the environment, people, and the economy and that do not further contribute to global waste and climate issues.

Nyquist: Can you give me an example of why these data and knowledge gaps matter?

Meidl: Our decisions should consider impacts across the entire lifecycle. Look at the polymer polylactic acid (PLA), a common bioplastic derived from renewable biomass, such as corn or sugar cane. PLA is celebrated for its recyclability and composability. As such, many people consider it an improvement over conventional plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels. However, from a lifecycle perspective, the PLA story is much different. PLA products are typically neither recycled nor composted and often end up contaminating high-value plastic streams, affecting the overall batch recyclability that is then diverted to landfills or incinerators. Industrial composting facilities are needed to control the environmental conditions necessary for PLA degradation, but low marketability and production rates and low nutrient value do not justify the high investment costs.

Also, because of PLA’s heavy reliance on agriculture, it scores poorly on environmental and social justice metrics: growing corn and sugar uses a lot of land and water. And it competes with primary food crops, contributing to food scarcity and inequality issues. At the moment, then, PLA does not solve the social, political, and environmental problems associated with plastics. To find a solution requires considering all impacts, including end-of-life management. That can mean fundamentally redesigning plastics so they can be broken down into their molecular constituents and then remanufactured into new plastics of equal quality.

Nyquist: Let’s talk specifically about plastics in oceans and other waterways. Please define the problem.

Meidl: We know that five Asian countries account for about half the plastics that make it into the oceans. Eighty percent of this comes from the land, and 10 river systems (eight in Asia, two in Africa) transport over 90 percent to oceans. Understanding this geographic clustering is an important revelation and is the first step to begin transforming the plastics economy. It indicates that if we want to turn the corner, the focus should be on the areas of highest risk where we can institute and improve the regulatory systems and waste infrastructure. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that the capabilities, capacity, and resources in developed countries usually outpace those in developing economies. Just because a particular action is feasible in, say, Europe, does not mean it can work elsewhere.

From a policy perspective, in regions or countries that lack recycling infrastructure or advanced technologies, the most economical choice, at least in the short term, may be to manage plastics in a regulated landfill. While this may not be ideal, it could at least prevent migration of plastics into the waterways. I say this because there is a noticeable deficiency in infrastructure investment in recycling and solid waste management. I think investors have recoiled from this sector because there isn’t strong evidence of financial and environmental returns. I understand there may be new investment to support improvements in Southeast Asia. Perhaps these can demonstrate success and help put this high-risk region on a more sustainable path.

Nyquist: What can and is being done?

Meidl: I would advise against managing plastics as “waste” as a proposed amendment to the global Basel Convention suggests. This kind of linear thinking is short-sighted and contradictory to a circular economy approach where the goal is to redesign, recover, and remanufacture.When plastics is categorized as a waste, as the Basel Convention amendment proposes, it immediately loses its value. From a CE perspective, the point is to have plastics enter and remain in the economy as a valuable commodity or energy source. Also, as the largest exporter of hazardous waste and plastic waste, the United States, is not party to the convention. Lastly, most international agreements are not legally binding and don’t have enforcement mechanisms. It’s also important to keep in mind that compared to other countries with a nationally-driven policy structure, the United States has a decentralized policy configuration where most solid-waste decisions are managed at the state and local levels.

Nyquist: Please discuss what companies can do to consider environmental impacts.

Meidl: Overall, the corporate and government perspective of lifecycle assessments (LCA) is limited. Many entities invest in LCA, but how meaningful is it? What is the scope? It’s relatively feasible to conduct a LCA at the process, program, or facility level. It becomes more challenging—but also more insightful—at the corporate level or throughout the global supply chain. LCAs should capture not only environmental impacts, but also social and economic impacts.

Nyquist: China is implementing restrictions on imports of plastic waste. What are the implications of that?

Meidl: I’ve always been interested in how trade patterns affect domestic markets, and this is a great example. China’s policy has disrupted the global economy and left exporting countries scrambling for new end markets for their wastes and recyclables. Many governments have narrowed or rescinded their recycling programs, resulting in plastics being stockpiled, landfilled, incinerated, or illegally exported due to lack of domestic infrastructure and end buyers. Until China’s restriction, the United States relied almost exclusively on foreign markets to accept most of its recyclable materials and certain categories of hazardous wastes. Thus, there has been minimal incentive to innovate and invest in advanced and sustainable solutions. No wonder domestic markets for the management of these materials have not emerged.

After the announcement of China’s restriction, trade patterns shifted to Southeast Asian countries. As they enacted their own stipulations, plastics then flowed to India. And that points to the heart of the issue. About 85 percent of India’s plastic waste is mismanaged. As a global economy, we should be objectively assessing whether international trade in hazardous waste and recyclables is truly considered fair trade and a part of the circular economy approach the international community is striving for. Exporting to countries that cannot responsibly manage wastes is not systems-thinking. It simply fulfills the pollution haven hypothesis and perpetuates the “not in my backyard” phenomenon.

Nyquist: Many countries and local governments are banning plastic straws and single-use bags. Is this a good idea?

Meidl: For perspective, it’s important to know that it is not necessarily the countries with the highest plastic waste generation that have the most mismanaged waste. High-income countries generate a lot of waste, but typically have capable waste-management systems and regulatory frameworks where the loss to the environment is relatively low. What that means is that if we were to eliminate single-use plastics in high-income countries, global mismanagement of plastics would decline less than 5 percent. That will do little to move the needle on plastics pollution. A targeted and integrated approach in the areas of highest risk would be more effective. It’s not that I don’t necessarily agree with bans; they demonstrate public engagement and awareness of environmental issues. But I do believe bans should be informed, methodical, and practical.

Before instituting a ban, it’s critical to identify the problem being addressed. Is it marine health? Climate change? Phasing out fossil fuels as feedstocks in plastics production? Each has a distinct policy path. If it’s climate change, then we should lead with data and science to inform our decisions and look to LCAs. Several LCA assessments indicate that replacing conventional plastics with currently available alternatives can actually create greater environmental impacts. For those considering a ban, alternatives should only be endorsed if they are deemed recyclable or recoverable. In addition, a study on the policy's effectiveness should be commissioned because you cannot improve what you don’t measure.

Nyquist: McKinsey has estimated that there could be a business opportunity—on the order of $55 billion to $60 billion in revenues—associated with new approaches to plastics recycling. Do you think this is likely to happen?

Meidl: It will only happen if we bring value back to plastics; these need to flow back into the economy as a valuable resource. That is not happening right now, but perhaps China’s restrictions will move us in that direction. Plastic waste is an untapped resource and loses value when designed for single-use and subsequently collected and sent to a landfill or recycled into a lower-grade product.

It’s absolutely possible to create this kind of business opportunity, but it will require a significant paradigm shift—toward deeming plastic as a resource and not a waste. This will require novel approaches to chemical recycling, such as pyrolysis, and associated regulatory reform. It will require new infrastructure, supply chains, and partnerships. And if we want to grow the market, there need to be better solutions that drive process efficiencies and improve cost structures, while enhancing plastic’s overall value.

Innovative technologies exist, and others are emerging. If these are adopted and scaled up, along with updated regulations that keep pace with technological advancements, there is a tremendous opportunity. But to reach this goal, there is a need for investment to support these transformational technologies; for education to increase awareness; and for collaboration among industries, technology providers, and governments.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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