Plastic is produced mainly from oil, and is refined by the petrochemical industry. This means that the use of plastics is associated with greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions can be reduced through i) technological developments towards sustainable plastics, ii) substitution with other materials, iii) increased recycling (in Sweden, over 10 percent of all plastics are recycled) and iv) increased recycling.
The aim of this external environment analysis has been to describe the effects of various plastic bans on the options listed above. Such an examination is justified, because a plastic ban is also being discussed in Sweden. A key issue in the external environment analysis has been to describe what impact (if any) the introduction of the bans have had on technical progress towards more sustainable materials.
A review of existing literature on this subject indicates that in the autumn of 2017, bans (primarily on plastic bags) were introduced around the world (in 42 countries), and were followed by a number of bans on disposable containers made of plastic (5 countries) and, finally, a ban on the use microplastics (1 country).
We can see that plastic usage has decreased as a result of the bans. This decline is due in part to the fact that materials other than plastic have begun to be used for bags and disposable packaging, and is also the result of customers choosing to bring their own bags with them when they shop. Several studies point to the importance of imposing additional charges for alternative bags, to encourage consumers to reduce their use of plastic bags, thus reducing littering. However, the imposition of a charge for alternatives may also create a market for such items, thus benefiting the technological development of sustainable plastic products.
Moreover, the financial impact of plastic bag bans on retailers and consumers appears to be minor. For example, replacing polystyrene packaging for food storage with alternative materials has proved to be more expensive, but the cost accounts for less than one percent of the cost of takeaway food.
The bans have almost exclusively led to substitution and reduction in the use of plastic bags, rather than to technological innovation. There are many reasons for this, but one important factor is the fact that alternatives (such as cloth or paper bags) already existed. This has probably also contributed to acceptance of the bans and has helped the implementation of most of the bans to go smoothly.
Another reason for the lack of technological innovation has been that the motive for the bans has not been to reduce the environmental impact; rather, the aim has been to reduce littering. From this perspective, plastics made from oil have been just as harmful as bioplastics.
In the course of working on this report, a hypothesis emerged: bans should encourage the development of new plastic materials. However, the analysis indicates that bans have not led to any major technological development of more climate-friendly plastics, e.g., bioplastics. Because it has been possible to substitute plastic with other materials, there has been no incentive to develop innovations such as bioplastics. Instead, the bans have become something of an obstacle to such development. If the development of bioplastics or similar material is the end goal, then other government interventions aimed at the technological development of bioplastics that are fully biodegradable will be needed, including help in promoting the emergence of so-called niche markets.
Bans and their effects on technological development – international experiences with plastic bans