Peter Wang Hjemdahl
Published 1 year ago.
About a 10 minute read.
80M tons of plastic waste will end up in the environment just in the next 10 years. Without voluntary, global producer responsibility programs to unlock capital towards infrastructure and bridge the policy vacuum, how else do polluters suggest for us to tackle this massive financing gap in the meantime?
Late last month, while friends, family, and strangers came together across the
world for the World Cup, Thanksgiving, and perhaps the first real
holiday season we’ve had in years, a gathering of an entirely different nature
kicked off in Punta del Este, a seaside town in southeastern Uruguay.
This was the site for
— the first out of four UN-led intergovernmental negotiating summits to
develop a legally binding global treaty to end plastic
(think COP, but dedicated to the plastic problem). Thousands of delegates
ranging from ministers, technical negotiators, and waste workers to activist
groups, top FMCGs, and Big Oil descended upon the tiny South American country,
each armed with our uniquely vested interests and ambitions to influence the
unfolding of this multi-year treaty-development
This was no casual affair. Throw out the small talk, mainstage keynotes, and
cozy afterparties of a quintessential sustainability summit, and enter position
papers, political alliances and realpolitik. At the end of the day, everything
was being put on the table — billions of dollars of potential new foreign aid,
massive increases to corporate compliance spending, livelihoods of millions of
future existence of entire sectors, and the career ambitions of every individual
involved in this process.
And of course, the media joined in, as well. On the second day of the
negotiations, an article was released titled, “Coca-Cola and Unilever: We're
not convinced by plastic
The piece chronicled the positions pronounced by members of Coca-Cola’s and
Unilever’s senior leadership in Asia. Both have purportedly explored the
viability of plastic crediting, and decided that the idea is not incredibly
attractive to the companies they represent or “the people that we might be
leaving out as part of that process.” Instead, they endorsed the creation of
government-led Extended Producer
(EPR) schemes and wanted to have “maximum participation” in the design and
development of these programs.
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When somebody first told me about this development, I was bewildered on a few
levels. What prompted Coca-Cola and Unilever to all of a sudden take such a
stance against the plastic credit ecosystem? Why are they painting plastic
as almost a ‘competitive’ concept to EPR? And finally, what’s their intention
behind coming out so strongly for government-led plastic action, when the
companies they represent have lobbied against much of
As always, the reality is deeply complex; but trust me — unpacking this was a
Before analyzing big CPG brands’ involvement in all of this, it’s important for
us to first get the facts straight.
First introduced in 1990 by academics in Sweden, EPR is a policy approach
under which polluters are given a significant financial responsibility by
regional or national regulatory bodies for the management of post-consumer
waste. Since then, the concept has been successfully operationalized in various
shapes by dozens of governments in the last few decades, primarily in the
If implemented effectively, the theory is that EPR can mobilize unprecedented
financial and technical resources that can be directed to increase capacity and
improve infrastructure for waste management within a particular region or
country. Through EPR policies, governments first allow for the creation of
Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs); plastic producers then pay
annual fees to them based on the quantum and severity of their waste footprint
in that jurisdiction; and PROs ultimately use this capital to deploy into waste
collection and recycling efforts on the ground.
Fundamentally, EPR is a brainchild of the widely accepted ‘Polluter Pays’
— and so is the plastic credit
EPR is simply a ‘national’ and ‘mandatory’ version of this principle, while the
plastic credit ecosystem is a 'global' and ‘voluntary’ manifestation of Producer
So, at the end of the day, if both EPR and the plastic credit ecosystem hold the
same worldview, then don’t government-led mandatory systems make more sense?
They would level the playing field, prevent any one actor from free-riding, and
mobilize resources to solve local pollution problems at a local
If we have EPR, why do we then need voluntary producer responsibility schemes
such as plastic
This is where theory differs from reality; and the simple truth is that the
probability for governments across the globe — particularly in the developing
world — to create and enforce high-quality, comprehensive EPR legislation that
rapidly tackles the plastic waste crisis is virtually zero. There are often just
too many idiosyncratic roadblocks for this to happen (e.g. lack of technical
capacity, country-level lobbyists for polluters); and on top of that, many EPR
schemes pass the critical task of creating, staffing and running Producer
Responsibility Organizations to the very companies responsible for the plastic
problem in the first place, which allows for a whole host of hidden, perverse
incentives to minimize cost and actual impact on the ground. And you wonder why
some of these companies would like “maximum participation” in designing such
And what about the global plastic treaty — can the INC process add much needed
momentum and alignment on EPR best practices amongst countries? With financial
mechanisms, technical assistance and national action plans as potentially
critical components of a global plastic treaty, I think yes. However, even if
alignment does occur, the treaty’s level of prescriptiveness is still a big
and its implementation will take many years. In other words, not a panacea,
So, while countries across the world go through the crucial yet painstaking
process of legislating actions nationally and negotiating for common rules
internationally, a staggering 80 million tons of plastic waste will end up in
the environment just in the next 10 years. Without voluntary, global producer
responsibility programs such as plastic neutrality & crediting to unlock capital
towards infrastructure and bridge this critical policy vacuum, how else do
polluters suggest for us to tackle this massive financing gap in the meantime?
Trust me — I have not said anything so far that companies like Coca Cola and
Unilever don’t already know. They know that if they endorse mandatory policy
actions and treaty-led global obligations over and above voluntary actions
through mediums such as the Business Coalition for a Global Plastic
Treaty and the INC process, they
gain moral credibility and help keep their seats at the table in front of
advocacy NGOs, state negotiators and domestic policymakers.
They know that high ambitions at early stages of international negotiations get
increasingly watered down throughout the process in favor of consensus amongst
countries, and that ‘national action plans’ and their corresponding corporate
compliance costs can be much more easily influenced and minimized at a
They know that if they publicly rail against the concept of “compensation” (when
EPR is just a different flavor of the same core Polluter Pays principle), they
can gain brownie points with a media environment that’s wary of
and audiences who are often too strapped for time to go beyond the heuristics
(e.g. understanding the fundamental difference between carbon
and plastic removals).
And most importantly: They know that if they sow doubts about the plastic credit
ecosystem and create a false dilemma between voluntary efforts and regulatory
actions, it reduces the likelihood for the environmental action space to finally
unite and collectively call for them to pay up the hundreds of millions of
dollars that are needed to take producer responsibility — and do so today,
instead of years from now.
Taking a policy stance that might or might not affect your bottom line in the
future is cheap. Putting your money where your mouth is and creating real impact
today is not.
Don’t get me wrong — while I am certainly a big believer in innovative
environmental-finance instruments and producer responsibility schemes such as
EPR, plastic neutrality and crediting, I recognize that these concepts are still
very much nascent — perhaps a bit tunnel-visioned — and can cause unintended,
adverse consequences on our efforts to tackle plastic pollution globally.
There remain many unanswered questions. How do we help align voluntary producer
responsibility schemes with government-led ones so that they can complement each
other? How do we ensure that plastic crediting stays aligned with ‘Polluters
Pay’ instead of devolving into greenwashing territory? And most importantly, how
should the producer responsibility ecosystem evolve from here to minimize its
potential downsides and maximize its benefits for our world?
I will be honest with you — when
Svanika and I first moved to Mumbai
in 2018 in pursuit of our dream to start a social enterprise, none of these
questions had crossed our minds. At that point, we felt privileged to have been
given $100,000 from our university to pursue
rePurpose and gave ourselves three months to learn
as much as we can about the informal waste sector.
Our one objective that we committed to, before we started: Even if we fail, make
sure that the $100,000 was well spent and actually did some good in the world.
From the very beginning, perhaps without us even consciously registering it,
our singular intention for rePurpose was for it to bring resources to folks on
the ground who needed them the most.
During that time, we tried to understand the pains and dreams of the millions
and entrepreneurs in a city like Mumbai and a country like India; witnessed the
impacts of severe underfunding in the sector; and saw plastic neutrality &
crediting as an opportunity to help revive and empower this community. We knew
it wasn’t a panacea; but it was better than nothing.
From there, we and the rest of our team successfully brought the idea to the
global market. We helped turn plastic crediting from mere white paper concepts
into a flourishing ecosystem that’s catalyzing millions of dollars every year to
empower informal waste workers, inspire corporate accountability, and create
much-needed waste-prevention infrastructure across the world. In doing so, we’ve
put a real dent in the global plastic pollution crisis.
But in the process of growing and scaling, we realized that the ecosystem we
helped create can be misused and abused by potentially bad actors, despite its
best intentions. So, with that in mind, and backed by the same fervor and
determination from our genesis five years ago, we at rePurpose Global are
committed to taking an industry leadership role in helping improve plastic
crediting and safeguard it for the betterment of everyone involved.
Producer responsibility is by no means perfect; but we at rePurpose are up for
the task and ready to walk our talk. Coca Cola and Unilever — are you?
Published Dec 15, 2022 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Peter Wang Hjemdahl is a Chinese-Norwegian social entrepreneur, and co-founder & Chief Advocacy Officer at rePurpose Global — the world’s leading plastic action platform dedicated to reducing waste, reviving lives and restoring nature’s balance.
Prior to his entrepreneurial journey, he strategized on business growth for social enterprises across 4 continents and advised on impact financing for development institutions such as the World Bank and USAID. Peter is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and has been awarded membership in several notable cohorts, such as Forbes 30 Under 30, Unreasonable Fellowship, Halcyon Fellowship, President’s Engagement Prize, BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network, and the St. Gallen Symposium Leaders of Tomorrow.