If nations can start working towards a global plastics treaty at the UN Environment Assembly this week, a more positive future for plastic is on the cards, writes Consumer Goods Forum managing director Wai-Chan Chan
Our relationship with plastic needs to change, and fast. Less than 10 per cent of all plastic ever made has been recycled – and this is causing significant damage to our planet. A WWF study earlier this month showed that if we don’t halt plastic pollution, there will be widespread ecological harm, putting some marine species at risk of extinction.
Immediate action from businesses, policymakers and consumers across the world is needed. There is no doubt that plastic can have an important role in getting people certain food, drink and other products in a safe and reliable way. But to protect the natural environment while meeting the needs of our growing global population, we need a system change. We need a circular economy for plastics, where it is used again and again in many forms, instead of becoming waste or pollution.
The OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook, published just days ago, highlights that ‘the current plastics lifecycle is far from circular’. Keeping all plastic we do use out of the environment is essential. But achieving this requires sustained action and a whole system approach involving global collaboration between companies, national and local governments, the recycling industry and consumers.
With the UN Environment Assembly meeting this week, there is hope that nations will draw up a blueprint for the first-ever global agreement to tackle plastic pollution. It would commit all nations to reducing plastic production and set agreed targets for recycling and pollution prevention. The UN says the treaty could be the most important environmental pact since the Paris Agreement climate deal in 2015.
At the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), we know that collaboration and common commitments are essential parts of the answer to the plastics problem. One reason why plastic packaging ends up in nature is because of the complexity of the collection, sorting and recycling process. As it relates to the latter, poor packaging design, the inclusion of problematic materials or excess packaging can make recycling very difficult.
By working in partnership, the consumer goods industry can make a profound positive difference to tackling these issues. While the scale of the challenge facing the industry is huge, it is also shared. As companies that design, package, and sell products, we must be a major part of the solution.
We are seeing the profound positive impact that collective industry action can have through the commitments of the 41 members of CGF’s Plastic Waste Coalition. Representing more than 10 per cent of the global plastic packaging market, they have come together to create and implement the Golden Design Rules to help the industry use less and better plastic.
These rules – which cover the vast majority of plastic packaging on the market – range from reducing virgin plastic use to removing elements from packaging which decrease its recyclability. Coalition members from around the world have committed to adopt them wherever possible by 2025 and to report on their progress.
There is mounting awareness and evidence of our global plastics problem. Now we must ensure faster urgency of action across the industry and beyond. We need a multi-layered approach from businesses, policymakers and consumers alike, which includes using less and better plastics, alongside investment in better systems for collection, sorting and re-use and recycling. Investment in local systems across the world will also help to end the export of plastic waste from country to country.
Well-run Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programmes are another important part of the answer, and we collaborate with governments to help ensure EPR systems are transparent and accountable.
If nations can start working towards a global plastics treaty at the UN Environment Assembly over the coming days, that will be a major milestone towards a positive future for plastics. We must seize the momentum and change our collective relationship with plastics; moving from a linear to a circular economy requires a different approach to production, consumption, reuse, recycling and disposal. Where we go from here is in our hands.
Wai-Chan Chan is managing director at the Consumer Goods Forum.