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Beginning With The End In Mind

plastic pollution

Ahead of the UN’s second International Negotiating Committee (INC-2) on establishing a global plastic pollution treaty, it will be no surprise that we’re advocating for legally binding global rules and comprehensive circular economy measures – a unique opportunity to accelerate systems change and end plastic pollution.

Over five days, 150 member states, and 1,500 people, including world leaders and industry executives, will come together to negotiate the UN’s #GlobalPlasticsTreaty. It is a huge moment. We can change so much of how we design, produce, sell, and consume for the better for generations to come.

As governments seek to define key elements of the treaty and develop a draft legal text, any such move to end plastic pollution must prioritise plastic packaging, which creates around 40% of total plastic waste. Plastic packaging is also one of the plastics most likely to end up in the environment.

Everybody knows any future fiscal policies and new legislation will create a new minimum bar of global corporate responsibility and the wise ones are adapting their businesses in anticipation of the inevitable. EPR, plastic taxes, carbon taxes, anti-greenwash fines and UN Global Plastics Treaty are all compounding to impact businesses that continue to misuse plastic. If you as a manufacturer are responsible for your plastics’ second, third, fourth, and forever life and the impact it causes – perhaps it’s time to consider using something else while you can still afford to. Or, at the very least, examine its merits more closely.

The United Nations Environment Programme and World Wildlife Fund released separate reports last week highlighting extended producer responsibility for packaging, promoting reuse systems and elimination of certain single-use plastics as among the key design and regulatory solutions for curbing plastic pollution.

The story is well told. What can still be one of the world’s most useful resources has drawn society into a dependency that threatens human and environmental health.

Any sustainable future would surely benefit from ending the plastics debate. Organisations like ours can help you take a more conscious and reasoned approach to deploying a material that the UN estimates is 91% single use.

But with the treaty development process well underway, it aims to include technical provisions that consider how to promote sustainable plastics production and consumption across their life cycle feasibly for stakeholders across the globe.

Consumer packaging should be a focus area for the treaty due to the widespread volumes of low-value, lightweight and disposable items contributing to pollution risk. From yoghurt pots and milk cartons to shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes, Europeans produce an average of 35kg of plastic packaging waste yearly.

From 2024, introducing EPR schemes for packaging will likely become mandatory across the European Union. The requirement, part of the European Green Deal, is part of a package of measures that will also set targets for the amount of recycled content new packaging will contain.

With EPR, it is fair to say that fragmented national approaches are hurting progress globally. Moreover, shared guidelines and minimum standards for EPR are necessary to define the desirable minimum operating standards of EPR schemes.

Our problem is that different countries do wildly different things; some implement bans, and others levy taxes. There are also different approaches to collection, sorting, and disposal. Some do nothing at all.

Where reduction and prevention are not possible, developing a well-designed EPR is proven to help the circulation of all plastic items that cannot be eliminated, keeping them in the economy at their highest value.

There is a broad consensus that something must be done. We all realise that just talking about reducing the use of plastic is not working, so these key legislative changes need to happen, and fast, for real change.

The life of packaging is short and often ends messily. Whether it’s a sandwich pack hungrily torn apart on a lunch break or an online purchase that has to be hacked out of a plastic clamshell, it almost always fulfils its purpose with varying degrees before being dumped in the bin. And all too often, that’s the end of the road for packaging. Its journey ends in the landfill or the incinerator. Designing packaging life cycles that end as well as they begin is key and EPR policies can tip the scales so that all companies introducing packaging and other products to the market contribute financially to their after-use collection and treatment.

In recent years, industry bellwethers have suggested that the pace of change and scale of transformation will define us. But with everybody projecting their meaning onto what they want EPR to do, genuine progress has been hard work.

There are many experts in this space, some who think they are experts (but aren’t), and some, like Ecoveritas, who keep learning and improving.

We need EPR to land. It will then need adjusting, possibly several times over.

Key provisions for inclusion in the new treaty to ensure circularity include adopting a comprehensive life cycle assessment and approach to materials; applying the polluter-pays principle and EPR to ensure a level playing field for all in the value chain; encouraging investment in recycling; and moving toward global metrics and standards. 

And when you consider the issues facing the planet, an assessment of how we’re dealing with the problems, and the kinds of solutions that are necessary for us to be able to continue to live and thrive here, untangling the current disconnected patchwork of solutions and establishing an effective and enforceable set of global rules and responsibilities is the very least we can do.

Next week, when negotiators meet in Paris to discuss the global plastics treaty, there is an opportunity to formulate a common approach and take a game-changing step.

Every decision has a consequence. This is why we never examine the sustainability benefits of packaging in isolation but examine the broader picture. We can measure and compare the sustainability performance of different packaging designs. Our goal is for all our customers to have a crystal-clear view of the circularity performance of their packaging and can make informed decisions on which designs meet their objectives most.

Strategies to reduce the environmental impact of packaging should be a top priority for everyone. And if you tackle things correctly, then packaging policy, true sustainability and planet-saving decisions are an opportunity – not a cost.

By Andrew McCaffery, Chief Strategy Officer at Ecoveritas

Manufacturing & Engineering Magazine | The Home of Manufacturing Industry News

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