Plastics are in our air, food and water. A reckoning is coming – and smart companies can see it

Next week, negotiators will meet in Paris to discuss a global plastics treaty. Governments are aiming to agree a common approach by the end of next year. In the world of multilateral agreements, this is a diplomatic sprint. Environmental activists believe this could be a crucial step in the fight against plastic pollution.

We don’t have many details yet, just a broad consensus that something needs to be done. Since World War II, humanity’s dependence on plastic has exploded, especially in recent decades. The private sector has largely failed to take responsibility for the unintended damages, and regulation is not sustained.

The result is a plastic waste crisis of exponential proportions. The mass of plastic on our Earth is more than twice the mass of living animals – and plastic waste is expected to triple by 2060. Globally, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is incinerated or ends up as landfill or polluting our oceans and environment.

It’s also a climate change problem: Hydrocarbons are the main ingredient in raw plastic, producing emissions the size of a small country just at the manufacturing stage.

We are only beginning to understand the harmful effects of plastic on human health. Over 13,000 chemicals are used to make plastic, and many are known to be toxic or remain untested. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that each of us eats a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. It is terrifying that nanoplastics can enter human tissue from our air, food and drink.

So yes, something needs to be done urgently, but the effectiveness of the contract will largely depend on how the business moves now.

Predictably, some companies are lobbying hard to undermine the negotiations led by petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It’s no secret that as our societies increasingly embrace renewable energy, many in the fossil fuel industry see the booming plastics sector as a lifeboat.

More encouraging, however, is the emerging coalition of companies calling for a stronger set of legally binding regulations—global rules to reduce plastic use, end plastic pollution, and enable a circular economy for the plastics that are still we need.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Compact includes retail giants such as Unilever, Pepsico, Walmart and others, as well as dozens of plastics manufacturers, investors and NGOs. These businesses are seeing where the regulatory winds are blowing. Many already have to comply with an EU-wide ban on common single-use plastics such as cutlery and straws. Brussels now wants to go further by reducing overall packaging waste across its 27 member states, in part because the bloc has fewer places to send its rubbish as more countries restrict waste imports.

For the plastic we continue to use – which will continue to have an important place in our homes and economies, just not in our streets, seas, atmosphere or bodies – companies want governments to step up so-called ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’. This will require businesses to fund the collection and safe treatment of their packaging and other short-lived products. In return, states must create the necessary infrastructure.

It’s a refreshing break from the short-sighted corporate lobbying we often see against environmental regulation. The clarion call to reduce the overall production of new plastic is new and vital. This comes after recent years have taught us two valuable lessons: We can’t recycle our way out of this problem — and we can’t keep asking users to fix it for us.

During my 10 years at the helm of Unilever, we were one of the first multinationals to switch to plastics. Right from the start we eliminated all harmful PVC as well as plastic cleaning beads. We set aggressive goals, including making all our plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, even though many say it’s impossible. During my tenure, we managed to reduce packaging waste per consumer by a third.

We also made mistakes. We underestimated the challenge of transitioning our customers to using fillers for products like laundry detergent and shampoo, which in many cases proved difficult to sell and harder to recycle. We overestimated the speed and success with which recycling systems would be introduced. We sold products in sachets because they were more accessible to people with lower incomes and we believed they could be handled with care afterwards. But despite our best efforts and Lord knows we tried, such small packaging of such low value proved impossible to collect at scale, let alone recycle. We need to get rid of the harmful sachets forever.

The deal is a rare chance to start tackling the plastics crisis before it overwhelms us. If more CEOs join the effort, it will give governments confidence that if they show ambition and can collaborate to scale up the best solutions, many in industry support them.

And if the environmental and ethical incentives aren’t enough, the business case should be. The international plastic regulatory landscape is a mess. Different countries do wildly different things. Some impose bans while others impose taxes. We see different approaches to collection, sorting and disposal. And some countries do nothing. This fragmentation piles complexity and costs on companies and ultimately consumers.

You can’t solve a plastics crisis with a regulatory mess. Nor can we build sustainable growth on the “take, make, waste” model of consumption that we have normalized in recent years. An effective and enforceable set of global rules and responsibilities will be much better for everyone. Today, business leaders have the opportunity to shape these very rules. If we miss it, our plastics problems will get worse, governments will struggle to come up with a solution, and business will probably not get the chance to shape it.

Paul Polman is a business leader and activist and author of Net Positive: How Brave Companies Thrive By Giving More Than They Take.

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