(2023-05-24) Plastics Are In Our Air Food And Water; A Reckoning Is Coming and Smart Businesses Can See It

Paul Polman: Plastics are in our air, food, and water. A reckoning is coming–and smart businesses can see it. Plastic waste is set to treble by 2060. Globally, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is mostly incinerated or ends up as landfill, or pollution in our oceans and environment.

It’s also a climate change problem: Hydrocarbons are the main ingredient in virgin plastic, producing emissions the size of a small country in the production stage alone.

Predictably, some companies are lobbying hard to undermine the talks, led by petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It’s no secret that, as our societies embrace renewable energy more wholeheartedly, many in fossil fuels see the fast-growing plastics sector as a lifeboat.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty includes retail giants such as Unilever, Pepsico, Walmart, and others, as well as dozens of plastic producers, investors, and NGOs. These businesses see which way 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. Now Brussels wants to go further, reducing total packaging waste across its 27 members, partly because the bloc has fewer places to send its rubbish as more countries restrict waste imports.

In my 10 years running Unilever, we were one of the first multinationals to move on plastics. Early on, we eliminated all harmful PVC as well as plastic scrub beads.

We also made mistakes. We underestimated the challenge of shifting our customers to using refills for products such as 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 put in place.

if the environmental and ethical incentives weren’t enough, the business case should be. The international landscape for plastics regulation is a mess. Different countries are doing wildly different things. Some are implementing bans, while others are levying taxes.

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