Next week, negotiators will meet in Paris to discuss a global plastic 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 could 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 the Second World War, humanity’s dependence on plastic has exploded, especially in recent decades. The private sector has largely failed to take responsibility for unintended damages and regulation has not kept up.
The result is an exponential plastic waste crisis. The mass of plastic on our Earth is more than twice the mass of a living animal–and plastic waste will triple by 2060. Globally, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is mostly burned or ends up in landfills, or causes pollution in our oceans and environment.
It’s also a climate change issue: Hydrocarbons are the main ingredient in virgin plastics, generating emissions the size of a small country in just the production stage.
We are only just beginning to understand the harmful effects of plastic on human health. More than 13,000 chemicals are used to make plastic, and many are known to be toxic or have yet to be tested. The World Wildlife Fund calculates that each of us is eating up to microplastics worth one credit card per week. Scary, nanoplastics can enter human tissue from our air, food and drink.
So, yes, something urgently needs to be done – but the effectiveness of the pact will depend a lot on how business operates today.
Predictably, a number of companies are lobbying heavily to sabotage the negotiations, led by petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It’s no secret that as our society embraces renewables wholeheartedly, many fossil fuel users see the fast-growing plastics sector as a lifeline.
More encouraging, however, is that a coalition of emerging companies is calling for a stricter set of legally binding regulations – global rules that aim to reduce plastic use, end plastic pollution and facilitate for the circular economy for the plastic we still need.
The Business Alliance for the Global Plastics Compact including retail giants like UnileverPepsico, Walmartand others, as well as dozens of plastic producers, investors and NGOs. These businesses see which direction the regulatory winds are blowing. Many have had to comply with an EU-wide ban on common single-use plastics, such as cutlery and straws. Now, Brussels wants to go a step further, reducing the total amount of packaging waste across its 27 members, in part because the bloc has fewer garbage dumps as many countries restrict waste imports.
For the plastic that we continue to use – which will continue to have an important place in our homes and economies, not in our streets, seas, atmosphere or bodies – companies want the government to strengthen the so-called “Extended Manufacturers Responsibility”. It will require businesses to fund the safe collection and disposal of their packaging and other short-lived products. In return, countries need to put in place the necessary infrastructure.
It was a refreshing break from the short-sighted corporate lobbying we often see against environmental regulations. The clear call to reduce total plastic production is novel and important. It comes after recent years have taught us two valuable lessons: We can’t get our way out of this problem–and we can’t keep asking consumers to fix it. that incident yourself.
In the 10 years running Unilever, we were one of the first multinationals to switch to plastic. From the very beginning, we have removed all harmful PVC as well as plastic scrubber particles. We set aggressive goals, including making all of our plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, although many consider that impossible. During my tenure, we have managed to reduce packaging waste by a third per consumer.
We also make mistakes. We underestimated the challenge of shifting customers to refillable products like detergents and shampoos, which in many cases proved harder to sell and recycle. We overestimated the speed and success with which recycling systems would be adopted. We sell products in bundles because they are more affordable to lower income people and we believe they can be handled with care afterwards. But despite our best efforts and god knows we did, such small and low-value encapsulation has proven to be uncollectible on a large scale, let alone Recycling. We need to remove harmful packages forever.
The pact is a rare opportunity to start tackling the plastic crisis before it overwhelms us. If more CEOs join the push, that will give governments confidence that, if they show ambition and can work together to scale the best solutions, more people in the industry will stand by. with them.
And if environmental and ethical incentives aren’t enough, so should the business case. The international landscape on plastic regulation is a mess. Different countries are doing wildly different things. Some are implementing bans, while others are taxing. We see different approaches to collection, classification, and disposal. And some countries do nothing. This fragmentation creates complexity and costs for companies and, ultimately, consumers.
You can’t solve the plastic crisis with a regulatory mess. Nor can we build sustainable growth on the “take, make, waste” consumption model that we have normalized in recent years. An effective and enforceable set of global rules and responsibilities is much better for everyone. Today, business leaders have the opportunity to shape these very rules. If we miss it, our plastic problems will only get worse, governments will scramble for solutions and business may not get a chance to shape it.
Paul Polman is a business leader and campaigner, and the author of Net positivity: how brave companies grow by giving more than they take.
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