Tackling Plastic Pollution Just Got Personal
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the U.N. Environment Assembly 5.2 (UNEA 5.2) held in Nairobi, Kenya to support Plastic Free Foundation director Rebecca Prince-Ruiz. Along with government diplomats, environment ministers, business leaders, non-governmental organizations and youth representatives from 175 nations, we witnessed the passing of a historic resolution to end plastic pollution that will forge an international, legally binding agreement within the next two years.
This landmark resolution aims to address the entire life cycle of plastic from source to sea, elevating plastic pollution from a perceived marine litter issue and acknowledging its major impact on our health and climate.
As brands continue to navigate how their sustainability intention will convert to action, they need to factor in the upcoming global plastic treaty and the public’s attention on both the planet and people being affected by the complex global plastics supply chain.
This is not the Paris Agreement for plastics — and it should not be
Many have written about the Paris Climate Accord resulting from COP21 and why it is a landmark climate achievement. Yet, seven years after nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement, we are still far from preventing severe global warming in the decades ahead. The idea that every country would set goals to curb carbon emissions was “disastrously slow-moving and insufficient,” with local stakeholders locked out of the negotiating process. To do better, we must facilitate open, multisectoral dialogues that leave no one behind.
Public concern for plastic pollution is high, and millions of individuals, supported by brands and corporations, have been vocal through their words and actions. A survey by Plastic Free Foundation found that nine out of ten respondents across 28 countries believe a global treaty is important. More than a hundred of the largest companies globally, including Starbucks and Unilever, have also issued a joint statement supporting a legally binding international treaty on plastic pollution.
The agreement by 175 member states is proof that a collective voice for change holds power, providing even more reason that nongovernmental stakeholders should not be ignored or excluded from negotiations.
Even so, the agreement will change our future
Plastic pollution comes at an enormous cost to both people and the planet. We produce some 400 million tons of plastic per year, and plastic pollution is now found everywhere in the environment. It’s present in our food, the air we breathe, our bodies, and even human placentas.
Currently, no international laws on plastics enable an effective cross-border response. The treaty will change this. It will set strong global standards and targets that incentivize nations and businesses to abide by them across the full plastic life cycle from production through disposal.
The treaty mandate has already engendered a positive ripple effect. In a landmark move, the U.N. has recognized waste pickers as part of the plastic pollution solution for the first time. An estimated one-quarter of the world’s population does not have access to formal waste systems. Instead, informal waste pickers collect, sort and sell back to producers locally. By recognizing their role in facilitating a circular economy, the plastic treaty is an opportunity to address fair pricing of waste and regulate against low-value plastics. In doing so, the treaty not only can tackle litter but also can address the human rights and welfare of millions across the world, especially women and children in the global south.
Why should brands care?
An important caveat is that the end of plastic pollution does not mean the end of plastic use. Instead, it reframes what constitutes “safe” plastic and limits hazardous plastic waste by regulating toxic chemicals and extending the legal responsibilities of producers.
As a result, a new standard narrative will emerge, akin to when The Guardian introduced terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world, favoring “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” over “climate change.”
Brands need to keep the following in mind:
- A widespread cultural shift is required. Plastics are no longer just a littering problem, and as measures are introduced to reduce the use of virgin plastic and harmful chemicals, brands will likely need to take a more active role in public literacy and supporting behavior change.
- Customers and employees expect to be heard. We know concern about pollution is high. However, as the plastic problem becomes more personal, affecting livelihoods and well-being in real and tangible ways, brands need to ensure that they have a comprehensive feedback loop to understand their community’s evolving expectations, motivations and fears.
- There is no reason to wait. If UNEA was the qualifier, the real event begins now — and all eyes are on the prize. Stay ahead and begin offering meaningful ways for customers and employees to connect their local actions to the global ambition of ending plastic pollution today.
Between now and the next UNEA in 2024, there are many unknowns. Virgin plastic production continues to soar, and markets face ongoing disruption due to COVID-19 and the increasing geopolitical turmoil. However, it is clear that aligning business goals with the environmental sustainability priorities of our generation will be critical.
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Images courtesy of Liz Hebditch; Sculpture: 'Turn off the plastics tap' by Benjamin von Wong, outside the venue for the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
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