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By Sheila Bonini, Senior Vice President, Private Sector Engagement, World Wildlife Fund U.S.
In recent years, a growing chorus of voices—among consumers, in business and across government—has urged immediate action to reduce plastic pollution. It’s a shift driven by countless images of natural habitats befouled by plastic waste and animals harmed or killed, as well as growing evidence that this pollution has entered the food chain. At the same time, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role that plastics play in our society—by serving as a critical component of the single-use personal protective equipment worn by front line workers who are striving to keep us safe in this challenging time.
So, is plastic a boon to human development, or a crisis for nature? The truth is, it can be both. What we need is a new approach that factors in every stage in plastic’s life cycle, from design to production, distribution, recycling and reuse. Only with this kind of holistic, transformative approach can we keep plastic out of nature while also embracing the positive role that it plays in our modern society.
First, let’s be clear-eyed about the pros and cons of plastic use. Every minute, roughly one garbage truckload of plastic enters our oceans. Every year, plastic litter entangles, suffocates, and starves a vast array of marine species, sea mammals and birds, while also causing billions of dollars in damage to marine ecosystems. As we look ahead to World Ocean Day on Monday, we know this is an urgent problem and the public is concerned about its impact on marine life and even on us through our food web.
However, plastic has also ushered in important breakthroughs for medicine, construction, electronics, and transportation. And though it seems counter-intuitive, plastic can also help protect the environment. Some eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of food that never makes it to anyone’s plate; by extending the shelf life of food, plastics make it easier to reduce food waste.
How do we strike the right balance? The solution lays in rethinking how we make plastic, how and when we use it, and what happens to it after we’re done with it. Making investments in the right infrastructure today — especially as we rebuild after the COVID pandemic — will result in improvements in the way we compost, reuse, and recycle plastics, so they don’t end up in nature in the future.
For example, the choice of raw materials impacts design and production, which in turn limits or expands options for reuse or disposal further down the line. If companies approach these early-stage choices with the big picture in mind, they can extend the life of natural resources, which is good for nature and their bottom line. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact oil costs across the globe, companies might look at low prices as an opportunity to increase their investment in virgin plastic. We’re telling companies: don’t take the bait. All companies should continue to honor the plastic waste commitments they have already made to ensure the sustainability of their business and the health of the planet in the long run.
Government policies will be important in crafting this more sustainable future, but companies also have a big role to play. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) experts estimate that commitments from as few as 100 companies could keep 10 million tons of plastic from entering our oceans, rivers, and forests. That’s why WWF teamed up with leading companies last year to launch ReSource: Plastic, an activation hub intended to help companies align their goals for plastic reduction with meaningful, measurable action. And to coincide with World Oceans Day, WWF will issue a new report with important findings about the plastic footprint of participating companies, as well as pragmatic lessons learned from the data collected throughout the first year of this collaboration.
The changes we seek won’t be free, but the cost of doing nothing will be far greater. Marine tourism and fisheries will suffer losses. Health issues arising from polluted water, air, and food will take their toll. Right now, these negative externalities threaten to overwhelm the positive contributions of plastics. Companies that step up to address their own plastic footprint—and, just as importantly, invest in changes toward a system that is both circular and values nature—will position themselves as industry leaders and align their practices with what consumers increasingly demand. The same ingenuity that gave us plastic can help us find a smarter and more sustainable way to live with it.
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