The Case for Incentivizing Innovation Across the Plastics Value Chain

A bright yellow trash can filled with empty plastic bottles and plastic waste.
Photo by pepe ceron-balsas on Unsplash

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to the health and safety of our ecosystems as well as the human and wildlife populations they support. Plastics are extremely versatile organic polymers produced from raw materials such as oil and natural gas. More than 9 billion tons of plastic have been funneled into our environment and landfills since mass production began in the 1940s. While there is a demand for plastic in almost every sector, the packaging, construction, and textiles industries produce and generate the most plastic waste.

360 million tons of plastic were produced in 2018.

A lilac colored poster that reads “plastic takes 500 years to decompose”
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Plastic waste comes in many shapes, sizes, and material compositions. This waste can contaminate water bodies and soil, block drainage pathways and rivers, and leach toxins into the environment that harm human and wildlife health. Microfiber pollution from synthetic textiles is gaining more attention as scientists study the sources and effects of microplastics found in the environment (see: “Microfiber Pollution is an Environmental Justice Issue”). Because plastic can take anywhere between 20 and 500 years to decompose, this issue will be around for the long haul.

Various plastic items can take anywhere between 20 and 500 years to decompose

Though plastic pollution in all of its forms is clearly harmful, comprehensive regulation and legislation efforts have fallen short at the international, national, and sub-national levels. While some governments have taken action against specific types of plastic (i.e. bans of plastic bags and plastic microbeads), most have failed to regulate plastic throughout its lifecycle and do not offer incentives for using plastic alternatives.

There is a distinct opportunity for policymakers and government bodies to incentivize innovation across the plastics value chain and encourage the adoption of alternative materials, new consumer reuse models, or end-of-life technologies (PEW, 18). According to the report “Breaking the Plastic Wave” by PEW Charitable Trusts, further economic incentives, regulatory requirements, and efficient funding efforts could help drive innovation in the plastics space.

Plastic waste floating amongst tiny black and yellow fish just under the ocean’s surface.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

Current prevalent economic incentives include taxes and fees designed to phase out the production of single-use plastic products. This is demonstrated by the fact that roughly 66% of countries have enacted some sort of legislation to regulate plastic bags. However, this method could be harnessed further to drive the market demand for innovations by increasing the penalties for not coming up with viable plastic alternatives (PEW, 103). In 2021, The United Kingdom introduced a Plastic Packaging Tax under its Finance Bill that does not apply to packaging containing at least 30% recycled plastic. By exempting recycled materials from this tax, plastic packaging manufacturers might be incentivized to produce packaging that will not get taxed.

Roughly 66% of countries have enacted some sort of legislation to regulate plastic bags

According to PEW Charitable Trusts, using regulations to change the products on the market and alter consumer behavior is another efficient way to harness policy for environmentally-friendly innovation (PEW, 103). France’s anti-waste law for a circular economy states that all washing machines made from January 2025 onwards must be fitted with filters able to catch microfibers released from clothing. This law not only gives microfiber filtration technologies — such as PlanetCare, filtrol, or Lint LUV-R — a market, but it also encourages laundry machine manufacturers and other filtration companies to innovate against the microfiber pollution problem. France will also employ economic incentives in tandem with this regulation, offering an environmental bonus to manufacturers who incorporate filters into their devices before the year 2025.

Targeted funding programs through government entities are another way of encouraging and guiding innovations through their most crucial stages of development (PEW, 103). From 2017–2020, The Fast Track to Innovation (FTI) program under the EU research and innovation initiative, Horizon 2020, was implemented with a budget of €300 million. This program worked specifically to invest in and reduce the time from idea to market of technological innovations, and particularly those in the fields of nanotechnology, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing and processing, and biotechnology. By funneling money into research and development efforts for sustainable alternative materials, government entities can impact the types of products reaching the market. Though not government-funded initiatives, private competitions such as the Microfiber Innovation Challenge and the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize also incentivize and support solutions to the plastic pollution problem through funding, mentorship, and follow-on programs. Thoughtful funding of projects at a range of technology readiness levels can guide innovations through difficult development stages, such as the startup “valley of death,” and help early-stage companies reach commercialization (PEW, 103).

The long-lasting impacts of all types of plastic pollution demonstrate the immediate need for innovation within the plastics value chain. Now is the time to act. Well-crafted policies and regulations can incentivize innovation and system change on the global scale that is necessary to protect our environment from the threat of plastic pollution. As we look towards the future, governments will need to “enact ambitious policy measures across the plastics value chain to foster innovation” and radically reduce the amount of plastic released into the environment (PEW, 119). By employing economic incentives, regulatory requirements, and targeted funding efforts, governments can increase the number of alternative products on the market, drive consumer demand, and catalyze real change.

A screenshot of an Airtable titled “policy landscape” with different categories such as “about the author” and “international policies addressing plastics”
See my research collated in this Policy Landscape

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Audrey is an intersectional environmentalist, rising sophomore at Smith College, and fellow at Conservation X Labs. Find her on twitter @AudreyCCho

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Audrey Cho

Audrey Cho

Audrey is an intersectional environmentalist, rising sophomore at Smith College, and fellow at Conservation X Labs. Find her on twitter @AudreyCCho

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