Solving the plastic problem: Are polluters cleaning up their act?

A recycling factory, which recycles plastic garbage from the Nile river, in Giza, Egypt, 24 May 24, 2021. (Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

From the masks we wear, to the food containers we buy, to our phone chargers, the majority of objects that we use on a daily basis contain plastic. These products represent a large part of the world’s economy, with global trade in plastics weighing around $1 trillion.

But pressure from consumers and tougher regulations are pushing some of the biggest polluting companies to commit to reducing their plastic footprint. On Monday, a group of more than 70 food and packaging giants, including Unilever, Coca-cola, and Nestlé, urged leaders to strike an “ambitious” UN international agreement on plastic pollution, less than two months before official discussions kick off at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

The statement called for the treaty to regulate plastics throughout its entire lifecycle, from its production to its consumption to its disposal, particularly aiming to reduce the production and use of virgin plastics.

But how are these companies contributing on their own to solve the plastics problem?

How the industry is doing

A growing number of multinationals have announced ambitious pledges to bring down plastics pollution in the past couple of years. Since 2018, over 500 chemicals companies, packaging manufacturers, and food brands and retailers have joined the Global Commitment, an initiative led by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) requiring companies to set targets to reduce their part in plastic pollution and gradually report on their progress.

Food and beverage companies have promised that all their packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable as well as contain at least 25 per cent recycled plastic by 2025. But according to the foundation’s 2021 report, there is still a long way to go.

Of the 1.3 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging generated in 2020 by the Swiss food and drink conglomerate Nestlé, only four per cent came from recycled plastic and 41 per cent of its plastic packaging cannot be recycled, reused or composted.

The Coca-cola Company, which produced three million metric tonnes of plastic packaging in 2020, managed to reach 11.5 per cent, leaving the beverage giant a little bit less than halfway towards meeting its goal. Almost all of its packaging is already recyclable.

While it’s hard to prove that these companies’ plan to follow through on their pledges, new regulation being considered may soon oblige them to do so. The EU has for instance set a target requiring bottles to contain at least 25 per cent recycled plastic by 2025 and at least 30 per cent by 2030.

Why it’s complex

Progress has been slow for a number of reasons. “Virgin plastic is very cheap, while recycled plastic costs more. It is also harder to work with and it is typically not as pure,” John Duncan, who leads the initiative No Plastics in Nature at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told Geneva Solutions.

As pressure grows on businesses to turn to recycled plastic, prices have also soared. The cost of post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common recycled plastic, has doubled since early 2021, according to the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS) the Financial Times has reported. “There isn't a functional economy for recycled materials,” Duncan said.

Currently, prices don’t reflect the real cost of producing plastics. They generally don’t take into account the CO2 emissions from extracting and burning of oil and gas, government paid programmes to collect and manage the waste, the loss of revenue for the tourism and fishing industry due to plastic pollution or the health bills it causes.

“All of these externalities make plastic cheap and part of the goal of a treaty would be to internalise some of those costs,” said Duncan. According to a report commissioned by the WWF and released in September, the true social cost of plastic produced in 2019 could be estimated at $3.7 trillion.

But swapping virgin with recycled plastic is not the only solution out there. “Reuse is one of the most exciting spaces, unfortunately it is not happening fast enough,” Duncan said, citing a reuse and refill pilot programme launched by Unilever in 2020 in the United Kingdom. Customers can buy a soda drink and then bring the bottle back to the store where it is collected to be cleaned and refilled for sale again.

There is also a growing interest in alternatives to plastics, but those come with their own dilemmas. Bioplastics for example, which are made from plants or other organic material instead of fossil fuels, have been praised as the solution to the single-plastic waste problem since it doesn’t result in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning and when discarded can just go back to the Earth.

However, fertilisers and land is required to grow the crops. Most compostable bioplastics are industrially compostable and have to be taken to a specialised plant, However, countries lack the proper systems in place to collect and manage these materials.

“Even in Switzerland, there are green waste bins, but they don't accept compostable plastics. For the moment, compostable plastic is just like normal plastic in most places around the world,” Duncan said.

“Alternative materials have to be taken on a case by case basis, and do a proper life cycle analysis to actually know if the alternative is an improvement on the current situation. Whether it’s a new plastic or glass or paper, everything has an impact and we don't want to fix the plastic problem to create a climate problem,” he added.

What’s in it for them?

With these and the countless other challenges ahead, many of the companies are turning to decision-makers for help. The argument is that plastic policies are too fragmented and are becoming a headache for manufacturers. A global treaty could provide a much needed set of global rules.

“Many of the companies who are supporting the call for a treaty want to see the system change and recognise they can't do it on their own,” Duncan said.

“It's all about level playing fields. In a sense, they don't mind whether their products are delivered in glass, plastic, or some other material with zero impact, as long as everyone's expected to do the same and then they'll still be competitive.”

In their statement for a plastics deal, the group of firms argue that “a new UN treaty is crucial to set a high common standard of action for all countries to abide by, and to drive the transition to a circular economy for plastics globally and at scale”.

The treaty should set “a clear direction” for addressing plastic pollution that “creates a level playing field and prevents a patchwork of disconnected solutions”, the signatories state.

A global agreement could also help unblock subsidies and incentives that could help businesses stir away from unnecessary plastics. But for a large part of the plastics industry, a global deal could be a threat to their existence. With demand for fossil fuel energy expected to drop sharply in the coming decades, oil and gas are heavily investing in plastics production as their future source of revenue. Last year, a group of scientists called for the agreement to phase out virgin plastics by 2040.

For Duncan, all those pushing for a treaty have to play their part to bring everyone on board: “We need to get across the line with a strong mandate so we want to make sure that it is seen as doable, practical and realistic and capping plastic production could be a red flag for the oil and gas industry.”

“The treaty shouldn't be seen as totally radical. It should be seen as absolutely necessary.”