The circular economy and the single use beverage containers

Last Updated on Friday, 9 December, 2022 at 2:53 pm by Andre Camilleri

Recently I was receiving several messages from different retail shop owners asking me about the recycling of single-use beverage containers. Honestly, I did not pay much attention to the subject in the past months, as I was focusing on other topics. However, the messages that I was receiving from retail shop owners, genuinely asking me about the implementation of the recycling plans, grew exponentially. In response, I decided to search for more information about the topic partly due the nature of its positive externalities on the environment and also because the subject dovetails with the notion of sustainable economics.  

Practically, the idea of recycling single-use beverage containers, especially plastic bottles is highly commendable, and it must be given proper attention. Clearly, the policies ought to limit the damage and negative externalities on the environment emanating from the overuse of plastic and other single-use beverage containers. Also, I envisage that the policies relate to the efforts aimed at increasing and enhancing our recycling culture, as well as to register higher statistical figures relative to our European peers. Indeed, the commercial industry is an important variable in the equation. Without doubt, the idea ties to the notion of the circular economy beyond the upcycling of dilapidated furniture. Evidently, when we talk about the circular economy, we must promote the idea of effective and efficient use of scarce resources. This is the reason why in the past weeks I was referring to Malta’s economy becoming an agile economy that adjusts to sustainable contemporary needs. Otherwise, it might prove difficult to achieve the targets that we are setting for long-term economic sustainability.

Unquestionably, the circular economy builds on the philosophical notion of bringing all market players together to achieve a common goal. Clearly, it entails revolutionary planning and great efforts to primarily establish the notion of togetherness for a common goal. Authorities, as well as those designing policies must seriously understand the philosophical concept of togetherness prior to the launching of large-scale projects that require a radical change in culture. Unless we truly understand what owe to each other, and that factors in not just humans, we cannot achieve common objectives, especially within the environmental sector. Indisputably, such concepts go beyond the optimisation of profits and the leveraging of private capital. Obviously, the common objective is to limit as much as possible, the damage to the environment and the formalisation of such policies are greatly appreciated.  

Undeniably, those reading this opinion piece, who like me watched blue planet – a journey that took us into the deep seabed of the ocean that explored the marine world – by now, ought to understand where I am coming from. Indeed, I enjoyed the BBC TV series, but it disturbed me to see the extent of damage that we humans inflicted on the environment, especially with the dumping of plastic into our rivers and oceans. We must remember that what we dump is what we ultimately consume; it comes back to haunt us not least on our food plates. For instance, the United Nations Environmental Programme Finance Initiative launched a statistical input output model, which is publicly available, to assess the impact of financial institutions on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Certainly, Responsible Consumption and Production, Life below Water and on Land, as well as Climate Action all from part of the UNSDGs. However, great efforts are required to achieve these established goals.

Needless to say, the European Union is pushing towards Cliamte Action, and its super regulatory powers are forcing economic players to transit to greener and sustainable practices. For instance, I saw pilot projects whereby citizens can recharge their supermarket loyalty cards at the reverse vending machines when disposing of single-use beverage containers or other recyclable materials. Innovatively, supermarkets partner with those providing the reverse vending machines,so that their loyalty cards are topped up with credit and in tandem it serves them as a form of marketing. The idea is to present the supermarket loyalty card at the cash till rather than a printed voucher. Other pilot projects that I encountered relate to the recharging of mobile phone credit by adding the collected funds when disposing of single-use beverage containers at the reverse vending machines. This can be executed by making the best use of technology through a mobile phone application. Another pilot project relates to the recharging of the travelling card used for public transport at the reverse vending machines placed right before catching the tram or the underground. However, public transport in Malta is now free so it is pointless to recharge the public transport tal-linja card.

Certainly, these are all concepts worth exploring to avoid printing materials and make the best use of technology and digitalisation. Nonetheless, the starting point of collecting single-use beverage containers is commendable, even though it needs additional refinements in the way it is being implemented. Obviously, the abundance of machines, as time goes by, would make it easier to dispose of single-use beverage containers. Surely, we need to provide an efficient way to recollect the deposit paid on single-use beverage containers, in the most efficient and effective way, especially in times of inflation.

However, the problem is to tackle the source of plastic rather than the collection of it once it is produced. Those who are my contemporary remember Malta with less plastic in circulation. We had one of the most efficient systems of collecting glass bottles. Indeed, milk came in glass bottles, likewise for Coca-Cola and other soft drinks. Let’s for a while leave aside the wounds that we suffered on our Achilles tendon when stepping on a broken glass bottle at the beach; ouch it was quite painful. However, when you think about it, the damage that we inflicted on our environment by introducing plastic is even more painful.

After all the damage that we wreaked on our surroundings, Eurocrats and policy makers around world have finally woken up to reverse the damage. Nevertheless, unless the EU steps in and bans or limits the single-use plastic beverage containers in the European Continent, and transits to more sustainable materials such as glass, the problem won’t be solved. It will limit and slow the damage imposed on the environment, but it will definitely not reverse it if we keep on producing and consuming. In the end, some of the produced plastic is still lost in landfills.   

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