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Global, Multisector Commitments Aim to Eliminate Plastic Pollution at the Source; Is It Enough?

NOTE: This article was updated on October 30, 2018 at 11:45am ET.

A Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source has been signed by 250 organisations including many of the world’s largest packaging producers, brands, retailers and recyclers, as well as governments and NGOs. For some signatories, the Global Commitment is just one facet of their plan to overhaul their approach to plastic.

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), in collaboration with UN Environment, and was officially unveiled at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali today.

The over 250 signatories include companies representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally. They include over 70 well-known consumer businesses such as Danone; H&M Group; Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc (J&J); Kellogg, L’Oréal; Mars, Incorporated; PepsiCo; Stanley Black and Decker and Unilever; major packaging producers such as Amcor, plastics producers including Novamont, and resource management specialists Rubicon Global and Veolia. See the complete list of signatories here.

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The Global Commitment and its vision for a circular economy for plastic are supported by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and have been endorsed by the World Economic Forum and the Consumer Goods Forum, along with 40 universities, institutions and academics. More than 15 financial institutions with more than $2.5 trillion in assets under management have also endorsed the Global Commitment and over $200 million has been pledged by five venture capital funds to create a circular economy for plastic.

“We know that cleaning up plastics from our beaches and oceans is vital, but this does not stop the tide of plastic entering the oceans each year. We need to move upstream to the source of the flow,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur. “The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment draws a line in the sand, with businesses, governments and others around the world uniting behind a clear vision for what we need to create a circular economy for plastic. This is just one step on what will be a challenging journey, but one which can lead to huge benefits for society, the economy and the environment. I encourage all businesses and governments to go further and embark on a race to the top in the creation of a circular economy for plastic — one in which this material never becomes waste or pollution.”

The Global Commitment aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging. Targets will be reviewed every 18 months, and become increasingly ambitious over the coming years. Businesses that sign the commitment will publish annual data on their progress to help drive momentum and ensure transparency.

The Commitment is defined by six key points:

  • Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models is a priority
  • Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging
  • All plastic packaging is 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice
  • The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources
  • All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals; and the health, safety, and rights of all people involved are respected.

Pavan Sukhdev, President of WWF International, said: “The plastics crisis can only be solved with the combined efforts of all key players in the system. WWF’s strategy in plastics is to advocate, amplify and accelerate a connected suite of initiatives for change; therefore, we are working closely with other key organizations, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to convey a joint message on our ambitious joint commitments, and to develop the tools needed to achieve these in partnership with companies, civil society, governments and citizens. WWF therefore endorses the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment as we consider it an important step forward to join the efforts of businesses and governments around the world towards system-wide solutions.”

UN Environment, which leads the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and its Clean Seas Campaign, last month also launched a Global Plastics Platform to support international efforts to tackle plastic pollution. UNEP said it would use its convening power to drive engagement with the Global Commitment from governments and other key players.

Governments that sign pledge to put in place policies and enabling conditions to support the Global Commitment’s targets and vision.

“The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is the most ambitious set of targets we have seen yet in the fight to beat plastics pollution,” said UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim. “It sets out the steps businesses and governments must take if we are to find a solution to the root causes of plastic pollution and we urge all those working towards dealing with this global issue to sign it.”

The missing ingredient

While the Global Commitment may create a clear vision for what we need to create a circular economy for plastic, not everyone is impressed: In fact, Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer at Oceana — the world’s largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation — went so far as to say she still doesn’t see global companies truly walking their talk around solving the plastic pollution problem.

"I hesitate to even call today's corporate announcements a step in the right direction,” she asserted in a statement. “To have an impact, these companies must reduce the amount of single-use plastic at the source — in the factory — before it gets to consumers. We need to move on from plastic bottles, bags, lids — and yes, straws. Recent beach cleanups have found plastic waste from Danone, Indofood, Unilever and others on Indonesia's beaches; yet none of these companies have committed to stop using plastic, to stop putting plastic into consumer products, or to even offer consumers alternatives.

“It's not rocket science: Every company that signed the declaration should commit to a meaningful, time-bound and specific percent-reduction of the amount of plastic it is putting into the market, and to find alternative ways to package and deliver its products. A circular economy is a nice, utopian idea, but this crisis is unfolding today, and we need to see meaningful commitments to end the plastics crisis these companies have created."

Additional brand commitments

Savitz makes an important point about the importance of shifting away from plastic while creating circular solutions to manage the plastic that already exists, and more brands are incorporating this thinking into their packaging strategies.

Last week, Danone announced a series of new commitments and actions to ensure its packaging will become 100 percent circular — including shifting packaging for certain product lines from plastic to materials with higher recycling rates (paper, glass, etc).

“We believe the time is now to step up and accelerate, embrace our responsibility and work with others to engage a radical shift that will help free the world from packaging waste. We will be acting both at global and local level to ensure circularity of packaging becomes the new norm,” said Danone Chairman and CEO Emmanuel Faber. “Today, we are announcing a series of investments and commitments that — I believe — will have a concrete impact."

And on Sunday, signatory SC Johnson announced its own new series of commitments around circular packaging, including continuing to remove excess packaging from its products: In 2017, the company says it cut 1 million kilograms of plastic from its product packaging.

Along with the new commitments, SC Johnson announced a new partnership with the Plastic Bank — over the next year, SC Johnson and Plastic Bank will open eight recycling centers in Indonesia to help increase plastic recycling rates in impoverished communities while addressing the challenges of poverty. Through The Plastic Bank’s blockchain-based “social plastic” recycling ecosystem, local waste collectors can bring the plastic they collect to any center, where they can exchange it for digital tokens that they can then use to buy needed goods and services.

“This partnership with SC Johnson is the first of its kind in Indonesia. It will help create more opportunities for people living in poverty and will offer waste collectors an important sense of pride,” said David Katz, Founder and CEO of Plastic Bank. “SC Johnson is the first CPG company to scale a program of this kind in Indonesia that will benefit a wide range of socio-economic demographics including local residents living below the poverty level.”

The first center officially opened in Bali on October 28, with all centers planned to be operational by May 2019.


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