6th November 2023

"Before condemning or defending, it is essential to understand."

Plastic is an integral part of our history, present and future. Nevertheless, it is mainly the downsides that are talked about – especially in France. ALPLA therefore spoke to Joseph Tayefeh, Secretary-General of Plastalliance, about the advantages of plastic, developments in the EU and his new book Plastique Bashing: L'intox ?.

Joseph Tayefeh

Why did you decide to write this book?

It was time to clarify the debate and even open it up. In France, for several years now, starting from 2018 to be exact, we’ve been hearing and reading about plastics without being able to offer any real counterarguments. This book will do that. I also wanted to pay tribute to the many European and American scientists, all too often forgotten, who were involved in the creation of the polymers used around us today. People talk about plastic without knowing what it is exactly, and this book sheds new light on the topic. Plastic is an integral part of our history, past, present and future, as the book reviews the many applications of this extraordinary material and makes the reader realise that it is no longer possible to imagine life without plastic.

Can you summarise the main message of the book in one sentence?

Before condemning or defending, it is essential to understand.

In the title of your book, you write about plastic bashing and compare it to intoxication. What is meant here?

You’ll notice that the title is spelled with the French word plastique and not ‘plastic’. The bashing of plastic is a very French specificity. Some French media, NGOs and politicians have told a lot of untruths about plastic, with the more or less avowed aim of making people feel guilty and inducing changes in the behaviour of manufacturers, customers and suppliers. For example, we’ve heard or read: ‘Plastic is dangerous’, ‘Recycling doesn't work’, ‘Plastic can’t be recycled’, or ‘Plastic is responsible for global warming’. In my book, I demonstrate through facts that these assertions are false. The general public has been intoxicated with a lot of fake news, and it’s time to debunk these preconceived ideas. This book is primarily aimed at the general public, but I think it will also be very useful for sales, R&D and even HR departments, which can sometimes find it difficult to ‘sell’ the attractiveness of a job in the plastics industry. Even those who know this industry well will be surprised.

In your opinion, that are the most significant issues in France regarding plastics, and what about on EU level?

In France, public policy is the embodiment of a paradoxical injunction: ‘We need to recycle more plastics, especially packaging, while taking into account the fact that by 2040, there will be no more single-use plastic packaging.’ That’s the French position in a nutshell. I’d like to reassure your readers that, as my book shows, this French objective has no chance of becoming reality – thanks precisely to the European Union. However, many industries (converters or recyclers) believed in this objective and stopped or slowed down their investments, or even switched production lines to other materials, because what’s the point of investing in developing recyclable plastic packaging or recycling it if it’s going to disappear a few years later? You’ll note that the Americans have never believed in this, and the arrival of Eastman Chemical’s €1 billion chemical recycling plant in Normandy is a perfect example.

The European Union has made another choice, one that is good for the environment without sacrificing business growth and innovation. There may be countries in the EU that find it goes too far in terms of plastics regulation, but when I see what is happening in France, I consider current and future European regulations (PPWR in particular) to be protective of the environment and the plastics industry. We can’t envisage ecological measures without making sure they’re economically viable, and I find that overall, the European Union is an example to follow on this subject, particularly for non-European countries and in the context of discussions on the global treaty on plastic pollution (also discussed in the book).

What are the key measures to improve the situation concerning plastics?

There is a series of actions to be taken, at European level and above all at global level, to really begin to reduce pollution by plastic waste and the book shares them. If we take the case of recycling, it’s under heavy attack in France from organisations who believe that plastics recycling is a sham, that it doesn’t work. But when only 9% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled, you can’t intellectually say that it doesn’t work. You can only say that recycling hasn’t got off the ground at all. There’s a lot of talk about incivility and consumer littering. But in many countries, in the absence of collection points, the garbage can is the street. Helping countries with no waste management infrastructure is a necessity, and the various studies cited in the book demonstrate that investing in this framework will greatly reduce pollution, unlike bans on certain products, which in no way reverse the pollution curve. For European Union countries with better or less poorly equipped facilities, it is absolutely urgent to ban landfill and to tax incineration more heavily, as these are currently, for France in particular, easy solutions and an admission of failure in recycling. The proceeds of the tax could, for example, be earmarked for recycling to make it more profitable. To improve the quality and quantity of plastic bottle collection, the introduction of a recycling deposit is also a necessity. But once again, these and other solutions can only work collectively, and no single measure is a miracle solution.

How do you assess the future of plastics in general?

I’d give you the answer to Dustin Hoffman’s line in the 1967 film The Graduate: ‘There is a great future in plastics’. Even the associations that fight against plastic – sorry – plastic pollution estimate that plastic production will double or triple by 2050 to 2060. I think it will be more, or the same but over a shorter period of time, but let’s take these projections. How many economic activities can boast such prospects? Have you heard of a doubling of the metal, cardboard or glass industry in the years to come? The whole world is investing in plastics in various forms (mechanically or chemically recycled, bio-sourced, reusable whenever possible). The European Union is well ahead of the rest of the world in terms of eco-design, recyclability and safety requirements for chemical polymers. We can only hope that this example will be followed elsewhere.

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