New Plastics Economy Lead: “Only businesses and governments can solve the plastic pollution crisis – it’s a race to the top”

New Plastics Economy Lead: “Only businesses and governments can solve the plastic pollution crisis – it’s a race to the top”

09 Nov 2018 --- On 29 October 2018, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that more than 290 organizations comprising 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally had signed a Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste at source and work collaboratively towards the development of a circular plastics economy. PackagingInsights speaks to Sander Defruyt, Lead of the New Plastics Economy project, about this landmark agreement, increased company transparency, effective consumer recycling, the role of bioplastics and more.

PackagingInsights: What sort of progress does the new Global Commitment represent? Why is it significant?

Defruyt: “The Global Commitment draws a line in the sand in the fight against plastic waste and pollution by uniting businesses and governments from around the world to make measurable 2025 commitments and drive action to address the problem at the source. By setting a minimum bar of ambition required for companies to join and by providing transparency on progress, it establishes a new standard. The minimum ambition level will be reviewed and raised over time, for companies in the fight against plastic waste and pollution.

Click to Enlarge
Sander Defruyt, Lead of the New Plastics Economy project

This is the largest effort ever to mobilize businesses behind a common vision. The Commitment is supported by WWF, and has been endorsed by the World Economic Forum, The Consumer Goods Forum (a CEO-led organization representing some 400 retailers and manufacturers from 70 countries) and 40 universities. Five venture capital funds have made commitments to invest over US$200 million by 2025 to create a circular economy for plastic and more than 15 financial institutions with in excess of US$2.5 trillion in assets under management have endorsed the Global Commitment.”

PackagingInsights: What are the benefits of a circular plastics economy over alternative models?

Defruyt: “The circular economy is a radically different model for economic development that is based on three principles: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. Clean-ups and recycling are vital, but you must tackle the problem of plastic pollution at the source. That is what the circular economy is all about.

A circular economy for plastic aims to eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all the plastic we do need can be safely reused, recycled or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment. The circular model allows us to capture an annual loss of US$80-120 billion in terms of material value to the economy, as well as eliminate the annual cost of at least US$40 billion due to environmental impacts of our current wasteful plastics economy – more than all the profits from the entire packaging industry combined.”

PackagingInsights: What are the main obstacles to a circular plastics economy and what steps must be taken to overcome them?

Defruyt: “Businesses and governments can already take many meaningful actions on their own, but changing the entire plastics system requires all actors involved working together. That is what the Global Commitment is about and why it is so important. We can achieve so much more if businesses, their suppliers and customers, and policymakers are all working towards the same vision and the same set of ambitious targets. Therefore, the Global Commitment is much more than just the sum of the individual commitments it includes.”

PackagingInsights: In order for a circular plastics economy to be achieved, what specific action would you encourage from packaging suppliers?Click to Enlarge

Defruyt: “In order to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic, packaging suppliers must commit to, by 2025, taking action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, and moving from single-use towards reuse models where relevant. They will also ensure that, by 2025, 100 percent of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, and set an ambitious recycled content target across all plastic packaging used.”

PackagingInsights: You mention 2025 as a target for sustainability goals and many suppliers and FMCGs are aiming at that, but why 2025? Can the timeframe be reduced?

Defruyt: “Given the scale of the challenge, immediate action is absolutely required. Many signatories are capturing quick wins and we strongly encourage others to follow their lead. For example, M&S is removing single-use plastic cutlery and straws this year. Colgate Palmolive will eliminate PVC packaging by 2020 and others have eliminated PVC from their packaging already. Eliminating such unnecessary and problematic plastic is something that can be done very quickly. We encourage all signatories to prioritize actions like these as they can have a significant impact in a minimum amount of time.

In addition to removing all unnecessary and problematic plastic, we have to keep all the plastic we do need in the economy and out of the environment. For this, alignment across industry and governments is needed, but this takes time. That’s why the Global Commitment’s common vision and 2025 targets are so important.”

PackagingInsights: And what specific action is required of governments?

Defruyt: “The Global Commitment asks of governments to take tangible measures and set out policies that drive the transition to a circular economy for plastic in five specific areas:

  • Stimulating the elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and/or products;
  • Encouraging reuse models where relevant, to reduce the need for single-use plastic packaging and/or products;
  • Incentivizing the use of reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging;
  • Increasing collection, sorting, reuse and recycling rates, and facilitating the establishment of the necessary infrastructure and related funding mechanisms;
  • Stimulating the demand for recycled plastics.”

PackagingInsights: What is the significance of signatories publishing their data? What can this level of transparency achieve?

Defruyt: “This level of transparency aims to stimulate signatories to meet their targets by ensuring accountability. It allows people from all across the world to verify whether progress made by signatories is fast and far-reaching enough.”

Click to EnlargePackagingInsights: How much of an issue is poor consumer recycling behavior and how can it be improved?

Defruyt: “For a system to work, all actors need to play their part, individual consumers included. However, an individual can only act within the system that is provided and that system is put in place by businesses and governments. They are uniquely positioned to change the way we design, produce and (re)use plastic as they decide what is put on the market, and what systems are put in place to reuse and recycle products and materials. The only way we have a chance at solving the plastic pollution crisis is by involving businesses and governments precisely because they have the capacity and responsibility to tackle the issue at its source.

On top of that, it is not just about recycling. The Global Commitment sets out a vision that explicitly recognizes that recycling alone is not enough. We cannot simply recycle our way out of today's plastics crisis. All 250 signatories agree with that. That is why the Global Commitment sets targets to eliminate the plastic we do not need; shift from single-use to reusable packaging; ensure all plastic we do use are reusable, recyclable or compostable. We will need to act on all of these together if we want to eliminate plastic pollution.”

PackagingInsights: After the Global Commitment announcement, European Bioplastics stated concern about the lack of consideration for bioplastic alternatives to single-use plastics. Do you see any role for bioplastic packaging in a more sustainable future?Click to Enlarge

Defruyt: “A key element of the vision behind the Global Commitment is that the production and use of plastic should be fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources, such as fossil oil and gas. The way for achieving this relies first and foremost on reducing the use of virgin plastic through dematerialization, reuse and recycling. Over time, any remaining virgin inputs required should switch to renewable feedstocks (i.e., bio-based plastic) from responsibly managed sources. In other words, to achieve a fully circular economy, all plastic should be bio-based or renewably-sourced plastic, but to realize this we need to drastically reduce the need for virgin plastics in the first place.”

PackagingInsights: What happens next?

Defruyt: “The Global Commitment is just one step on what will be a challenging journey. However, by harnessing the combined power of innovation, industry, policy and citizens, we can go beyond turning the tide on plastic pollution. We can create long-term resilience, and generate new business and economic opportunities that deliver huge benefits for society, the economy and the environment.

We will review and, where relevant, raise the minimum targets for businesses every 18 months, encouraging all signatories to embark on a race to the top.”

By Joshua Poole

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