2021 June-July Analysis Featured

The case for waste – Georgia’s new strategy on plastics

Plastics aren’t all bad. By incentivizing collection and sorting within the confines of a circular economy, a significant portion of plastic waste can be reduced and even turned into cash.

Municipal waste in Georgia piles up to 1.1 million tonnes per year, of which nearly 14% is plastics, statistics from the Caucasus Environmental Knowledge Portal show. 83% percent of marine litter found in Georgia’s Black Sea waters is plastic. On average, one person consumes 85 plastic bottles per year in the country, most of which ends up in landfills and rivers, where they can last and languish for hundreds, if not thousands of years, if action is not taken.

And action must be taken—in addition to purely environmental concerns, for a country whose tourism sales pitch is much dependent on its natural wonders and agriculture, it is imperative that the country work on keeping its grounds clean.

Action plans to this end do exist in Georgia, such as the 2016-2030 National Strategy and Activity Plan of Waste Management, with which the state hopes to achieve the ambitious task of reaching a 50% plastic recycling rate by 2025 and an 80% plastic recycling rate by 2030.

However, given that the recycling industry is rather new in Georgia, the country is developing an action plan that looks at the entire value chain in order to reach these numbers.

It will be a step-by-step process. In addition to the already existing plan for waste management, a targeted National Plastic Waste Prevention Program is in the works, which will largely mirror the EU’s own Plastic in the Circular Economy Strategy.

The initiative to develop the national program in Georgia is being supported by the Embassy of Norway in Georgia and implemented by CENN in tandem with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia.

The plan is set to be finalized later this year with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture.

In bringing the country’s stance on plastics into alignment with that of the EU, Georgia stands to reap many benefits from a circular approach to the plastic economy.

What is the plastic circular economy?

Plastics aren’t necessarily a pest to be entirely eliminated as is often portrayed—they can have their place in the economy too. After all, they have been vital in the development of light and innovative materials in automobiles and planes to save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. Plastics can form high-performance insulation materials, which help save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, biocompatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovations.

As for more immediate consumables, there is money to be made in the process of recouping plastic waste and recycling it to make new products. In the circular economy, plastic is treated as a resource and recovered in a closed loop to avoid waste.

Currently, the so-called linear system (production, purchase, use, disposal) of how Georgia consumes and disposes of plastic fails to capture these economic benefits of plastic.

To gather the environmental and economic benefits of plastic, an overhaul of the value chain is needed, in addition to a redesign of products that takes into account the product’s end of life stage.

In 2018, the EU developed its Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which aims to transform the value chain and ensure minimal leakage into the environment.

The strategy addresses things like product design, e.g., avoiding over-packaging and single use plastics; designing products to increase their recyclability; strengthening the recycling industry by stimulating markets; establishing multi-sectoral cooperation; setting out investment priorities. The strategy integrates Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes and sets out targets to be met by 2030.

The EU has been pushing its stance on plastics beyond its own borders and is closely examining global value chains, particularly since waste flows have changed following China’s late-2017 decision to ban the import of plastic waste.

Single-use plastics and over-packaging and how to deal with them will feature prominently in Georgia’s national plan, as they are the most problematic materials, and are a major source of littering and environmental pollution. They are not easily recyclable, are often used on the gom and quickly discarded. They are among the items most commonly found on beaches, including on the coast of the Black Sea.

And yet these plastics have become so deeply ingrained in modern life so as to make their extraction from it practically impossible. This, however, is not a tragedy, but rather, an opportunity. While one does have to ask how much of such packaging is really needed, one can also review its benefits, for example, in reducing food waste and carefully assess existing alternatives so that society does not move the problem of pollution from one wastestream to the other.

The role of the private sector in this aspect of Georgia’s national plan, in reviewing their plastic footprint and making reductions where possible without compromising the benefits of some packaging, is an important one.

Excess packaging is an area in which significant reductions can be made. For example placing fruits and vegetables in separate plastic-covered packages is often unnecessary and has no storage benefits. To add to the problem, most of the excess packaging currently used in this way is either non-recyclable or not easily recyclable.

Both the EU’s and Georgia’s strategies will be looking at how to phase out this problematic and often unnecessary packaging. The EU strategy also explores opportunities for reusing packaging and refers to EPR schemes that can help set up deposit schemes that can boost recycling.

The program will also consider trends in imports, exports, and re-exports to regulate the flow and the quality of the plastic coming in, which will dictate whether Georgia can benefit economically by re-exporting material that is in demand and avoid contaminated waste imports.

Product design will be another aspect of the program, as arguably the most widely discussed issue when it comes to transitioning to a circular economy.

The reality is that most of our products are designed to become waste, and the combination of chemicals and materials used in most products make them harder to recycle. Per the plan, during the design process producers will have to think about the entire lifecycle of their product and design materials which makes them reusable, refillable, repairable or recyclable. This also means looking at the chemical composition of the materials and regrouping to ensure the product’s recyclability.

In Georgia, ‘ecodesigns’ will be encouraged; however, since Georgia has fewer plastic producers, Georgia’s main strategy will be focused on ensuring that packaging placed on the local market can be reused or recycled.

The plan also sets out to improve the traceability of chemicals and address the issue of legacy substances in recycling streams. There are industry guidelines already in place that help manufacturers and other companies in how to design for recyclability and what to avoid to simplify the recycling process.

The program will also include an examination of the short, mid and long-term investments necessary to achieve what is set out in the strategy.

Plastic recycling has much more potential than what is being currently exploited. However, compared to other waste streams, the rate of plastic recycling remains significantly low. Reasons for this range from the lack of proper sorting infrastructure and a lack of demand for recycled products to product design and lack of trust in recycled consumables.

The EU has come up against these last two issues in recent years, with confidence and demand in recycled products remaining low.

In response to this, the EU has pledged to stimulate and strengthen the market through investments, brokering cooperation between companies, and increasing the demand for recycled materials.

In Georgia, the recycling industry is relatively new and is only just beginning to gain momentum. Plastic recycling in Georgia mainly consists of collection and export, with actual processing on a limited scale.

Georgia has a relatively small domestic plastic industry; imported plastic products rank ahead of the in-country production of raw materials. But Georgia has potential to develop the industry in a positive direction through recycling. At this stage, reusing and recycling end-of-life plastics remains quite low, rates of landfill disposal are high, and demand for recycled plastics is also quite low.

Targeted investments can play a key role in strengthening the recycling sector. Georgia’s strategy will mimic that of the EU, which underlines the cardinal components of what those targeted investments could look like: improving product design to increase recyclability rates; expanding and improving the separate collection of plastic waste; expanding and modernizing sorting and recycling capacity; and creating viable markets for recycled and renewable plastics.

Similarly, Georgia will also be focusing on creating viable markets by incentivizing the uptake of recycled content. Among other things, Georgia’s national program will look at international practice, EPR schemes, collection system, policy design and investments.

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