Next week, negotiators will meet in Paris to discuss a global plastics treaty. Governments aim to agree a common approach by the end of next year. In the world of multilateral agreements, it’s a diplomatic sprint. Environmental activists believe this can be a game-changer in the fight against plastic pollution.
We don’t have many details yet, just a broad consensus that something needs to be done. Since World War II, humanity’s reliance on plastics has skyrocketed, especially in recent decades. The private sector has largely failed to take responsibility for unintentional damage, and regulation has not followed.
The result is a plastic waste crisis of exponential proportions. The mass of plastics on our Earth is more than twice the mass of living animals– and plastic waste is expected to triple by 2060. Globally, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is mostly incinerated or ends up in landfill or pollutes our oceans and environment.
It’s also a climate change issue: hydrocarbons are the main ingredient in virgin plastic, producing emissions the size of a small country at the production stage alone.
We are only beginning to understand the harmful effects of plastics on human health. Over 13,000 chemicals are used to create plastic, and many are known to be toxic or have not been tested. The World Wide Fund for Nature calculates that each of us eats up to the equivalent of a microplastic credit card every week. Terrifyingly, nano-plastics can enter human tissue from our air, food and drink.
So yes, something needs to be done urgently, but the effectiveness of the treaty will greatly depend on how affairs develop now.
Predictably, some companies are pushing to undermine the talks, led by petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It’s no secret that as our societies increasingly embrace renewable energy, many fossil fuel players see the rapidly growing plastics sector as a lifeline.
More encouraging, however, is the emerging business coalition calling for a tougher set of legally binding regulations – global rules to reduce plastic use, end plastic pollution and enable a circular economy for the plastic we we still need.
THE Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty includes retail giants such as Unilever, Pepsico, Walmart and others, as well as dozens of plastic producers, investors and NGOs. These companies see where the regulatory winds are blowing. Many already have to comply with an EU-wide ban on common single-use plastics, such as cutlery and straws. Now Brussels wants to go further, reducing total packaging waste in its 27 members, in part because the bloc has fewer places to send its waste as more countries restrict imports of waste.
For the plastic we continue to use – which will continue to have an important place in our homes and our economies, but not on our streets, our seas, our atmosphere or our bodies – companies want governments to reinforce the self- saying “extended producer responsibility”. This would require companies to fund the collection and safe treatment of their packaging and other short-lived products. In return, States must put in place the necessary infrastructures.
It’s a refreshing break from the short-sighted corporate lobbying we often see against environmental regulation. The clear call to reduce the total production of new plastics is new and vital. It comes after the past few years have taught us two valuable lessons: we can’t recycle our solution to this problem, and we can’t keep asking consumers to solve it for us.
In my 10 years at the helm of Unilever, we were one of the first multinationals to go plastic. Right from the start, we eliminated all harmful PVC as well as plastic scrub beads. We have set ourselves ambitious goals, including making all of our plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, even though many have said this is impossible. During my tenure, we managed to reduce packaging waste per consumer by a third.
We also made mistakes. We underestimated the challenge of shifting our customers to using refills for products such as detergents and shampoos, which in many cases have proven to be hard to sell and harder to recycle. We overestimated the speed and success with which recycling systems would be put in place. We sold products in sachets because they are more affordable for low-income people, and we thought they could be treated with care later. But despite our best efforts, and God knows we tried, such a small package with such little value proved impossible to collect on a large scale, let alone recycle. We need to get rid of harmful sachets permanently.
The treaty is a rare chance to start getting the plastics crisis under control before it overwhelms us. If more CEOs join the push, it will give governments confidence that, if they show ambition and can collaborate to develop the best solutions, many industry players will support them.
And if the environmental and ethical incentives weren’t enough, the business case should be. The international plastics regulatory landscape is a mess. Different countries do wildly different things. Some put in place bans, while others levy taxes. We see different approaches to collection, sorting and disposal. And some countries do nothing at all. This fragmentation adds complexity and expense to businesses and ultimately consumers.
You can’t solve a plastics crisis with a regulatory mess. Nor can we build sustainable growth on the “take, make, waste” model of consumption that we have normalized in recent years. An effective and enforceable set of global rules and responsibilities will be much better for everyone. Today, business leaders have the ability to shape those same rules. If we miss it, our plastic problems will get even worse, governments will scramble to find a solution, and corporations probably won’t have a chance to shape it.
Paul Polman is a business leader and activist, and the author of Net Positive: How courageous businesses thrive by giving more than they take.
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