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Colombia halves major store plastic bag consumption, ramps up deterrents

Colombia’s consumption of single-use plastic bags at major stores more than halved in the past 18 months and the government is mulling greater deterrents to their use, as the outlook for applications of plastics and petrochemicals grows gloomier in the South American country.

A program promoted by Colombia’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs’ to reduce the use of plastic bags in large stores and supermarkets resulted in a 54% decrease in the consumption of single-use plastic bags over the past 18 months, the ministry said in mid-August. The decrease in consumption of fossil fuel-based single-use plastic bags is calculated based on self-reporting required of large stores and supermarkets under current regulations.

And the deterrents could ramp up. “The government will even consider increasing the tax from the current 50 pesos/bag (1.56 cents/bag) to 100 pesos/bag (3.13 cents/bag),” said Minister of Environmental Affairs Ricardo Lozano.

The minister also indicated the scope of the charge could be expanded, because many small commercial establishments are not currently subject to the regulations.

According to the ministry, the program aims to end single-use plastic bag consumption and to replace them with compostable, more environmental friendly raw materials, in about a year.

Lozano said in an interview on local television this week that “we would like to transition to a 100% environmental-friendly raw materials by the end of year 2020.”

“I am positive we can achieve the goal we set for 2020, as the same people rapidly have found substitutes to replace the oil-based single-use plastic bags,” Lozano said.

Colombia’s efforts to diminish the impact of oil-based plastic waste started with the levy. The tax has been an incentive for people to transition to reusable bags when shopping. Concern about the single-use plastic bags ban continues to dominate conversations across a wide range of industry sectors in the country.

More plastics targeted

In addition to the single-use plastic bags ban, some members of the Congress of Colombia are leading a project that seeks to ban plastic cutlery, straws, glasses and elements for cigarettes. The proposed legislation would prohibit the manufacture, importing, sale and distribution of single-use plastics by 2021, and by 2025 cigarette butts and the entire use of plastic bags.

The proposed law includes material manufactured from a wide range of organic and fossil fuel-based polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (PSE), PVC and polycarbonate.

Given the ample spectrum of derivatives from polyethylene involved, the petrochemical industry – represented by Acoplasticos – is worried about the bill obtaining any traction among lawmakers. The bill needs to be debated in Congress four times, and already passed the first round of debate on March 26, with 17 votes in favor and 1 vote against.

The Ministry of Environmental Affairs established a “plastic task force” in an attempt to find a solution for better use of plastics and to avoid waste plastic ending up in the ocean. It hopes to bring national and regional initiatives together to work on plans for a circular economy for plastics, partly through the efficient management of materials, water and energy.

Another aim is the promotion of business models that incorporate the circular economy and create joint ventures between companies that allow one party’s waste to become raw material for another.

However, “before entering into a complete ban on plastics, Colombia should study carefully the substitutes for fossil and organic origin polymers,” Daniel Mitchell, Acoplasticos’ president, said during the last meeting of the task force on July 26. “The element plastic itself is not dangerous but the manipulation and final destination of the plastic that ends up in the ocean is where Colombia should focus its attention.”

A robust and rigorous recycling system should be implemented in Colombia to achieve the desired objective of avoiding plastic waste ending up in the ocean, the trade association said.

Demand and prices

According to Acoplasticos, after 18 months of taxes on plastic bag use in supermarkets, demand for HDPE film shrank 28%.

HDPE film prices Mexico Colombia plastic packaging

The weaker demand has been reflected in CFR prices for HDPE film in Colombia. Since January 2018, pricing for HDPE film trended lower from $1,320/mt to a record low on August 21, of $890/mt CFR, any Colombian port. That assessment was the lowest since S&P Global Platts began assessing the West Coast South America HDPE market in June 2010.

The global demand outlook for the petrochemicals and plastic sectors is none too optimistic either. Global capacity surpasses demand, largely because of startups from the first wave of more than $200 billion in new US petrochemical infrastructure coming online in response to unprecedented access to cheap domestic ethane feedstock.

PE resins are used to manufacture the most widely used plastics in the world, from pipes, bags and milk jugs to pails, detergent bottles and food and beverage containers.

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