Chile’s crusade against plastics prompting stronger sustainability push by firms – trade group

Jonathan Lopez


SAO PAULO (ICIS)–Chile remains at the forefront of restrictive plastics regulations in Latin America as the whole political spectrum tries to capitalize in rules which resonate with public opinion, according to the CEO at the country’s trade group Asipla.

Magdalena Balcells added that, however, the regulations have prompted a larger push for sustainability among companies in the plastics chain which, in turn, is making them fitter for the future.

Chile was one of the first countries among a very small group in Latin America which introduced, for instance, mandates for carrier plastic bags to be charged in shops, sharply reducing their use.

In countries such as Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, plastic bags are omnipresent, given for free in shops. Their presence as waste in the streets of cities like Sao Paulo is equally omnipresent.

A visitor to Chile’s capital Santiago can quickly note the absence of such a waste, among many other differences with other Latin American countries.

Interestingly, Balcells also concedes the plastics industry could have done better in some aspects, not least waste – she said producers knew a long time ago the plastic pollution problem was becoming a serious human and environment health issue but were either late to talk about it and alert the authorities, or, in most cases, ignored it entirely.

Chile’s economic and social indicators tend to be indeed better than in most Latin American countries. According to Balcells, members of parliament (MPs) from all sides get confused about this and propose plastics regulations which are not fit for the country’s reality.

But despite its healthier indicators, Chile remains an emerging economy and the infrastructure for collection and recycling of plastics is far from being like those in some European countries which started setting it up in the 1990s.

Chile is also debating regulations on recycling targets and bans on certain plastics, following European and other developed countries’ examples.

“For example, we had three companies producing plastic bags in Chile, a relatively small country with 30 million residents. Soon after the bags regulation was introduced in a hurry, two of those companies went down. That may not have been significant in the big scheme of things, but it was relevant and painful for some parts of the plastics chain,” she said.

“Moreover, in the best Chilean way, municipalities – which were given the last say in the law’s implementation – all fought to be the first in the class, especially those in the south of the country where of course our natural resources are priceless, the Patagonia.”

The story about the social benefits of plastics – as producers put it – became old as the cons outweighed the pros. The planet is full of plastic waste – several studies have already showed how humans now also contain traces of plastics, which enter their stream from already-contaminated fish, for example.

Hydrocarbons have given birth to the homo plastic – quite a fate for an industry which is just a few decades old.

This correspondent has interviewed many plastics trade groups and producers in the past 10 years and has heard the mantra about how useful for society plastics are several times: no matter how many times repeated, the mantra is not resonating with public opinion.

On that aspect, Balcells is ahead of peers in the plastics lobby. It may be part of Asipla’s lobbying strategy, or it may be actual conviction, but her recognition the plastics sector has benefited from selling a cheap material with decent margins for decades while ignoring the end of the chain – waste – gives her a certain edge.

“In fact, when I was appointed head of Asipla six years ago I was blunt and told company members: we need to change course in our strategy, or we’ll be overtaken by regulations and that will be worse of your own survival as companies. Rightly or not, plastics have become the visible enfant terrible in the sustainability debate, and we need to fight that with more than words saying how good plastics are,” she said.

“Of course, there was fierce resistance to the changes at first. I implemented not only changes in terms of our marketing, but also by exploring new avenues in the plastics debate which prompted a deeper debate about sustainability, as well as the consequent and necessary investments in research and development to improve plastics’ sustainability.”

Front page picture: A recycling plant, archive image
Source: JC Tardivon/SIPA/Shutterstock

Interview article by Jonathan Lopez


Global News + ICIS Chemical Business (ICB)

See the full picture, with unlimited access to ICIS chemicals news across all markets and regions, plus ICB, the industry-leading magazine for the chemicals industry.

Contact us

Partnering with ICIS unlocks a vision of a future you can trust and achieve. We leverage our unrivalled network of industry experts to deliver a comprehensive market view based on independent and reliable data, insight and analytics.

Contact us to learn how we can support you as you transact today and plan for tomorrow.