Norway, the Plastic Nation, it’s Time to Act
The plastics nation Norway is only 2.4% circular If no investments are made in better framework conditions for a circular plastics economy, the ambitions from the government’s Granavolden platform can remain precisely this – goals without action.
After the devastating episode about recycling on Folkeopplysningen on NRK, the debate about Norway’s plastic use has flared up. During Debatten (The Debate) with Fredrik Solvang on the 25. of August Solvang accuses Minister of Climate and Environment Sveinung Rotevatn of lying about what is actually being done and that the level of ambition for recycling plastic is too low. Rotevatn defends himself by saying that we are well on our way to achieving our waste sorting goals that have been set and that the level of ambition will continue to increase. This is not good enough.
We have to adress the elephant in the room
Elephant in the room is running free – the consumption. Norwegian plastic consumption has tripled since 1958, and in the last 20 years alone, plastic consumption has increased by 50%. Put in perspective: According to Folkeopplysningen, we now use 100,000 tons of plastic a year, where as much as 80,000 tons end up being burned. Had we burned all the plastic we consumed in the year 2000, this would have been equivalent to 66,000 tons. In other words: If we had managed to keep plastic consumption at the level we had in 2000, we could have burned 14,000 tons less plastic – completely without waste sorting.
Despite this, waste sorting or recycling are the big buzz words we are talking about in connection with waste and how our consumption affects the environment. Pictures of whales with their stomachs full of plastic waste are followed up by strict messages that we need to get better at sorting our waste and recycling. It is clear that plastic must be sorted seperately, but we must stop putting ourselves in a position where so much plastic must be sorted at all. We have to use less plastic in the first place. On the road towards the green shift, we seem to have forgotten some of the fundamental principles of circular economy. We are constantly reminded to recycle, while the most important measures – reduction and reuse- comes second.
System change requires both carrot and stick
During Arendal week 2020, the industry organization Virke arranged a debate on Norway’s transition to a circular economy. State Secretary Mathias Fischer from the political party Venstre said that circular framework conditions are really about small things, and that incremental changes in existing regulations and framework conditions are what is needed to speed up the circular adjustment. But is it really that easy?
The real job is to change value chains, consumer mentality, producer responsibility and market mechanisms. Those are not small incremental changes. There are long lines and big moves that will require both effort and investments from politicians, authorities and future-oriented companies. This can be seen, for example, in the EU, which recently launched an action plan for critical raw materials that addresses challenges we have yet to address in Norway. Ebba Boye (From the organization: The future in our hands) said it well, in her report on a circular future:
“The goal is to create a market where outdated business models are no longer profitable.”
The way the system works today, manufacturers have direct incentives to produce products and materials of as poor quality as they can get away with, as this leads to customers returning and buying new products. To create the market Boye is talking about, it is important that the authorities dare to think differently, with a focus on innovative business models and balance the carrot with a stick. The political toolbox has several instruments that in combination can stimulate better resource utilization and circular solutions. These are some of the things we believe should be discussed in the light of a new national strategy:
Last year we heard that Ringnes had to pour out 25,000 liters of soda, because they get a tax refund on the destruction of surplus goods. A tax on the incineration of waste and the destruction of surplus goods can incentivize producers to produce goods of better quality, with extended life and with a plan for effective recycling.
Surplus goods and deterioration of goods are also punished for tax purposes today: If a product loses value, you have to write down the value according to the lowest value principle in the accounts. However, no tax deduction is triggered until the item is actually discarded. It should be possible to take a tax loss on inventory without actually getting rid of the item, as the current scheme is a direct incentive to discard items.
Today, it is far too expensive to use recycled or bio-based plastic. A CO2 tax on the import and use of virgin, fossil-based plastics could help to correct this bias and reduce the access to disposable plastics.
A recognized instrument is “extended producer responsibility”, which means that the producer must be held responsible for a product after it has been consumed. A report from Deloitte in May indicates that Norway’s producer responsibility scheme is limited in its scope and that it does not add any financial incentives for reuse and waste reduction. A producer responsibility scheme must aim to provide an overview of all companies that place plastics and other materials on the market today. It should punish design and production that leads to increased material consumption, and incentivize rental models and reuse.
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the instruments used must be of sufficient scope to actually create a shift and challenge the status quo. By the end of the year, a national strategy is expected in this area, to which great expectations are attached. In light of Fischer’s statement, our concern is that we will be good at detecting the small barriers, but not brave enough to take the major systematic steps needed to ensure that the circular economy becomes something more than just another green buzzword in Norwegian context. If the basic framework for how we utilize and preserve input factors in the economy doesn’t change, the small barriers will lead to just as small progress that does not make Norway the pioneering country it wants to be.
Ida Pernille Hatlebrekke, Chief Commercial and Sustainability Officer Looping AS og Herman Persen Fostvedt, Head of Supply Chain and Business Development Looping AS