Next week, negotiators will meet in Paris to discuss a global plastics treaty. Governments are aiming to agree on a common approach by the end of next year. In the world of multilateral agreements, this is a diplomatic sprint. Environmental campaigners believe this can be a game-changing step in the fight against plastic pollution.
We don’t have much detail yet, just a broad consensus that something must be done. Since the Second World War, humanity’s dependence on plastics has exploded, especially in recent decades. The private sector has largely failed to take responsibility for the unintended damage, and regulation has not kept up.
The result is a plastic waste crisis of exponential proportions. The mass of plastics on our Earth is over double the mass of living animals–and plastic waste is set to treble by 2060. Globally, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is mostly incinerated or ends up as landfill, or pollution in our oceans and environment.
It’s also a climate change problem: Hydrocarbons are the main ingredient in virgin plastic, producing emissions the size of a small country in the production stage alone.
We are only beginning to understand the harmful impacts of plastics on human health. Over 13,000 chemicals are used to create plastic, and many are either known to be toxic or remain untested. The World Wildlife Fund calculates that we’re each eating up to one credit card’s worth of microplastic every week. Terrifyingly, nano-plastics can enter human tissue from our air, food, and drink.
So yes, something must be done urgently–but the effectiveness of the treaty will greatly depend on how business now moves.
Predictably, some companies are lobbying hard to undermine the talks, led by petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It’s no secret that, as our societies embrace renewable energy more wholeheartedly, many in fossil fuels see the fast-growing plastics sector as a lifeboat.
More encouraging, however, is the emerging coalition of companies 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 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 businesses see which way 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 across its 27 members, partly because the bloc has fewer places to send its rubbish as more countries restrict waste imports.
For the plastic we continue to use–which will continue to have an important place in our homes and economies, just not in our streets, seas, atmosphere, or bodies–the companies want governments to strengthen so-called “Extended Producer Responsibility.” It would require businesses to fund the collection and safe treatment of their packaging and other short-lived products. In return, states need to put the necessary infrastructure in place.
It’s a refreshing break from the short-sighted corporate lobbying we often see against environmental regulation. The clear call to reduce total new plastic production is novel–and vital. It comes after recent years taught us two valuable lessons: We cannot recycle our way out of this problem–and we cannot continue to ask consumers to fix it for us.
In my 10 years running Unilever, we were one of the first multinationals to move on plastics. Early on, we eliminated all harmful PVC as well as plastic scrub beads. We set aggressive targets, including to make all of our plastic packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable, even though many said it’s 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 detergent and shampoo, which in many cases proved difficult 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’re more affordable for people on lower incomes, and we believed they could be carefully dealt with afterward. But despite our best efforts, and lord knows we tried, packaging this small and with such little value has proved impossible to collect at scale, let alone recycle. We need to get rid of harmful sachets for good.
The treaty is a rare chance to start getting on top of the plastics crisis before it overwhelms us. If more CEOs join the push, it will give governments confidence that, if they show ambition and can collaborate on scaling up the best solutions, many in industry stand with them.
And if the environmental and ethical incentives weren’t enough, the business case should be. The international landscape for plastics regulation is a mess. Different countries are doing wildly different things. Some are implementing bans, while others are levying taxes. We see different approaches to collection, sorting, and disposal. And some countries are doing nothing at all. This fragmentation heaps complexity and expense onto companies, and ultimately consumers.
You can’t fix 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 vastly better for everyone. Today business leaders have the opportunity to shape these very rules. If we miss it, our plastics problems will get even worse, governments will be scrambling for a solution, and business likely won’t get the chance to shape it.
Paul Polman is a business leader and campaigner, and the author of Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take.
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