Plastics are a constant part of lives for their usefulness and price, but they are also a growing problem for our environment, our oceans and our health. Here’s what we can do to change our plastic habits.

Plastics have become an indispensable part of our lives. They’re useful, cheap – and easy to discard. Unfortunately, when you plough plastic into a landfill, it stays there for a very long time. It’s a problem that has been buried for decades. And like the plastic itself, the problem hasn’t gone away.

In fact, it is piling up. By 2050, even accounting for recycling, our land and water will be polluted with 12.5 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste, weighing as much as one million Eiffel towers or 1.5 billion elephants.

Every gramme of plastic contributes to the growing degradation of our planet and human health. The carbon footprint of the plastics lifecycle is also significant. As much as five kilograms of CO2-equivalent emissions results from each kilogram of plastic produced, from feedstock production until end-of-life treatment.

While some regions, such as Europe, have made strides in addressing plastic pollution, having implemented the ban on single-use plastics and stricter measures underway, it is not enough to curb the growing volume of single-use plastics. And we are far from reducing plastic production and demand, much of which comes from packaging.

Innovative solutions do exist, but they come with their own challenges. The European Investment Bank’s Advisory team lays them out in our recent publication, Cutting Plastics Pollution: Financial measures for a more circular value chain.

Solving the plastics problem

Unless the world creates a fully circular economy in plastics, we continue repeating the same endless cycle: increased plastics production, rapid consumption, followed by discharge into the natural environment.

We need to reinforce the idea of circularity, ensuring that plastic isn’t used once and then thrown away. That means strengthening the steps of the plastic life cycle: creation, distribution, collection for recycling, and recycling itself.  

There are two ways to do this.

First, we need to change regulatory policies to ensure they include technical standards, such as restrictions on hard-to-recycle plastic types and minimum recycled content requirements.

Other regulatory measures could include price incentives that would boost the competitiveness of plastics with a high percentage of recycled materials. In short, we need to make it cheaper for consumers to adopt good habits when it comes to plastic, by choosing products that use packaging with recycled materials.

Second, we have to expand recycling capacity and innovation in how plastic is produced, collected, sorted, and recycled to make it more profitable.

How do we get started on these solutions? The European Investment Bank can support the transition to circularity. The availability of financing – not only on a European, but also on a local level – plays a key part.

The Clean Oceans Initiative brings together six financing partners that have committed to invest, by 2025, an impressive EUR 4 billion into pollution-reducing projects with a particular focus on supporting circular solutions that reduce plastic and microplastic discharge to the ocean. The consortium includes EIB, EBRD as well as the French, German, Italian and Spanish national financing bodies.

Loans to municipalities or local authorities could finance the scaling up of plastic sorting and recycling facilities. In France, for example, CARBIOS SA invested €60 million to build a new plant and a biodegradation unit, which will use two innovative bioprocesses for the recycling of plastic waste and biodegradation for plastics that today largely is landfilled or incinerated.

We need to do more than just expand existing recycling efforts, however. We need innovative technologies and processes. We need to support research, development and innovation for alternatives to plastic and new circular concepts. We then need to ensure these emerging technologies are adopted on a large scale. Technology is in no way a silver bullet, but technical innovation could provide a path out of the historical linear production and consumption models that created our masses of plastic waste on land and water.

We choose the way forward

After all, the choice ultimately lies with the consumer. Private individuals and households account for two thirds of all plastic use, whereas only one third is used across industrial and commercial applications.

Consumer brands need to use their substantial marketing power to influence public opinion and inform consumers that the environmental price of certain plastics is just too high. Consumers, with their daily shopping choices, can send strong signals across the plastics value chain. But ultimately, we need to reward good behaviour with profits, and bad behaviour with extra costs.

This article was originally published in The Economist.