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Circular Economy / 18.07.2022

The sustainability challenge is also sociological

The sustainability challenge is also sociological

We tell children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we think emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths before they’re grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as adults depends on them knowing the world as it really is. We worry, and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus.

Carl Sagan, The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark

Within the packaging sector, the challenge par excellence that marks the roadmap for the next decade is sustainability. A term battered by conflicting interests and antagonistic discourses that generate conflict and confusion in the consumer, who is helpless without information or training to be able to choose and act in a reasonable manner. The capacity for consumer involvement is not unlimited and while our concerns follow, overlap and multiply one another (economic crisis, climate change, food waste,…) the window of opportunity to achieve a circular economy for packaging is narrowing. Because the challenge of sustainability is also sociological and requires that collective logic (the common good) take precedence over individual logic (comfort).

Despite the key role of the final consumer in the transition to a circular economy for plastics, consumers always seem to be the ones largely forgotten in the legislative processes. Consumer associations take part voluntarily in the consultation and public exposure phases, but they are not consulted directly. Much reflection, prior dialogue and consensus are needed when trying to change habits and not doing so results in a great lack of knowledge of how the packaging value chain works and in imposing regulations that transfer great stress throughout the chain until reaching the final consumer, who is the one who ends up assuming the cost increases.

The Spanish tax on non-reusable plastic packaging was already an environmental tax proposal introduced in the Spanish White Paper on Tax Reform by 2019. The theoretical justification for it was to collaborate for a lower Spanish contribution to the “Plastics own resource“, in force since 1th January 2021, contribution based on the amount of non-recycled plastic packaging waste, that is, waste not reintroduced into the production circuit and end up in landfill.

In addition to stimulating Europe’s transition to a circular economy, the resource leaves the Member States the possibility the possibility to define the most suitable policies to reduce plastic packaging waste pollution in line with the principle of subsidiarity. For its part, the project of Spanish Royal Decree on packaging and packaging waste provides for the extension of the Extended Producer Responsibility in terms of the extension of the costs covered by the collective EPR systems to the remain waste fraction and street cleaning. That is to say, it is necessary to “pay for the non-collaboration of the citizen”.

In accordance with the concept of due diligence (1), the State must implement the appropriate tools to prevent damage to a common good (in this case, the environment and natural spaces), against conduct carried out by individuals (littering); thus, the purpose of the tax should be not so much to collect as to change behaviors that have a negative impact on the environment. However, the tax on non-reusable plastic packaging penalizes the use of virgin material in the container and the project of Royal Decree obliges packaging producers to cover the costs derived from street cleaning. In what way does this prevent littering?

The consumer is the one which closes the circuit of the circular economy of packaging at home, which enables the increase of the recycling waste rate, but also the one who dumps waste. End user should be convinced to participate in the waste management of the packaging acquired. Socially, the consumer already knows it, but no matter how much legislation is legislated, awareness and information work are required and take time: if the consumer is not convinced through head and heart, he will hardly participate.

Nevertheless, there have been significant changes in the social perception toward littering and in the consumer behavior. IIn an opinion study carried out by IPSOS at the end of 2020 in seven European countries, the following two questions were included in Spain: do you think that those who indiscriminately throw garbage in public spaces should be sanctioned? 90% answered yes. The next question was: do you think that those who indiscriminately dump waste into the natural environment should be sanctioned? 98% answered positively. To realize how much we have made progress we simply should think about what our responses would have been twenty years ago.

(1) Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Legal Spanish