And that’s a wrap! The closure of the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) last week became a defining moment as leaders of the world adopted a resolution to start negotiations on the UN treaty on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution has been on the UNEA agenda since their very first session back in 2014. Over the years, the topic has evolved, but in these times of increasing divides, a coordinated international approach to understanding and addressing the problem is needed more than ever.
The facts are there: every year, 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced, almost the entire weight of the human population. Only 9% of today’s plastic waste is recycled, and 11 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean every year; that is one garbage truck of plastic dumped into our oceans every minute.
Plastic plays an important role in society: it protects goods from damage, provides food safety, extends food freshness, allows cars to be more fuel-efficient and offers strength, lightweight, long-term durability and low maintenance in buildings.
But the pollution plastics generate intersects with the key sustainability challenges the world faces today:
- Climate change: the production of plastics, and in some places open burning of plastic waste, creates a high carbon footprint
- Nature loss: high volumes of waste end up in the environment, harming wildlife and ecosystems
- Inequality: 2 billion people do not have access to regular waste collection and plastic leakage mainly comes from developing countries that lack basic waste management infrastructure
Plastic pollution is a complex issue that requires intervention and collaboration at multiple levels – across the plastic value chain and the whole life cycle of plastics. Delay in taking action at a global level is no longer an option and the new resolution adopted at UNEA-5.2 opens up new opportunities for business to contribute.
Time for collaboration
We know the challenges are still ahead of us. The negotiations on the UN treaty that aim to conclude by the end of 2024 provide a great opportunity for public and private collaboration. This is why WBCSD calls on policymakers to create a global agreement that allows countries and companies to speak a common language and enable cooperation throughout the value chain, stimulating investments in material innovation, product design, as well as in capacities, infrastructure and technologies for collection and recycling – driven by the core principles of circularity and sustainability. At WBCSD, we stand ready to offer a platform for discussions between member states and the business community to road-test what works, analyze data gaps and help rapidly shape a global agreement.
Ambitious companies are already taking action and over the last years, WBCSD has worked with members on different initiatives to address some key questions:
How to catalyze investments to end plastic waste in the environment?
That was the question we asked our members a few years ago that led to the creation of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Seizing the urgency of the issue, and after just three years, with around 90 member companies and partners, the Alliance has now over 35 projects in 80 cities (at the end of 2021) and continues catalyzing investments around key strategic pillars: Infrastructure, Innovation, Education & Engagement, Cleanup (2021 Progress Report).
How to make packaging sustainable?
40% of the global plastics produced is for packaging application. Together with other single-use items, it is what is most littered and visible on our beaches, in rivers and oceans. Societal push-back on single-use plastics, including plastics packaging, has been strong, and many policies have been developed to prevent and reduce the impact of plastic products on the environment (for instance, the Directive on single-use plastics in the EU).
Companies have also reacted to ensure their packaging is sustainable – moving from one packaging material to another. But are we all aligned as to what packaging sustainability is?
Since the start of our Circular Plastics and Packaging project early 2021, our members have defined sustainability in packaging as ”maximum circularity and minimum environmental footprint, while avoiding the presence of harmful substances”. We have established core principles behind packaging sustainability and we will be shortly releasing SPHERE, WBCSD’s Packaging Sustainability Framework. It offers a unique approach for decision-making to choose the most sustainable option for the specific packaging need and delivery system at hand, helping companies to reduce their packaging environmental impact.
How to assess business performance against their plastics circularity goals?
A growing number of companies are setting targets and taking action on a circular economy for plastics, in particular through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment, and there is a clear market ask for standardized reporting and disclosing metrics around plastics. The question is how to assess business performance against their plastics circularity goals considering that the plastic reporting and disclosure field is still emerging and dispersed.
With our members and partners, we are working on a set of metrics to report progress on plastic usage, recycling and circularity targets that can be applied consistently across geographies and industries. In this area, collaboration with policymakers of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the UN treaty on plastic pollution would be key for alignment - trickling down from the global and national to the corporate scale with indicators, calculation methods and terminology across the plastic value chain.
Plastic pollution directly impacts our climate and nature, and disproportionately affects marginalized communities. The challenges we face are global and no country or company can solve them independently. With their international reach, businesses can lead the transformation and forge collaboration with governments to drive change at the required speed and scale.
Let’s keep the momentum high, let’s collaborate – business and policymakers – to end plastic pollution.
If you are interested in joining or learning more about our work on plastic and packaging policy, please contact Delphine Garin, Manager, Plastics & Packaging, WBCSD: email@example.com