We Can’t “Build Back Better” Without Addressing Plastic Pollution

by Erin Simon, Head of Plastic Waste and Business, World Wildlife Fund

 

After a year of unprecedented devastation and loss, the arrival of 2021 has shown us at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Our top priority remains the immediate health and safety of our fellow citizens, but we also have a responsibility to begin planning for a post-pandemic future. Right now, we have a historic opportunity to not just re-build what we’ve lost, but to “build back better” by making environmental sustainability a pillar of our national and global recovery.

Consider the clear and growing problem of plastic pollution. Every minute, the equivalent of a dump truck full of plastic waste seeps into our oceans, and that number is projected to nearly triple by 2040. In order to close the loop on waste flowing into our oceans and other ecosystems, we need to create a truly circular economy in which plastic maintains its value at every stage of its life cycle, stopping it from becoming waste in the first place. But in order to accomplish that, we first need a firm grasp of the policy proposals, emerging technologies, and other potential solutions that will shape much of the dialogue around this critical issue.

 

Advances in the Policy Landscape

Efforts to address the plastic waste challenge have long been hampered by a lack of consistent national targets. Our waste management system happens at the local level, and without any national targets or legislation to enable waste reduction, communities are left to fend for themselves with differing levels of success and ability.

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced before the onset of the pandemic, is the first comprehensive bill to address the entire life cycle of plastic, from extraction and manufacturing to re-use and recovery. Among other things, the bill would establish Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, a mechanism that shifts some financial responsibility for the end-of-life management of plastic packaging to producers, thereby creating an incentive for them to design products that can be more easily reused or recycled. Passage of the extended producer responsibility and complementary mechanisms could transform the way we create, manage and rely on plastic waste.

The private sector also has a clear stake in establishing the global framework needed to implement large-scale plastic waste initiatives, and a big role in making that much-needed framework a reality. Two-thirds of UN member states have already indicated they are open to the idea of a global treaty on plastic akin to the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. With so many companies and organizations now putting their collective muscle behind this effort, through initiatives like The Ocean Plastic Leadership Network and The Business Call for Action, we’ve never been closer to having a unified, global strategy to end plastic pollution.

 

Emerging Technologies and Other Solutions

Policies help establish the conditions needed for transformative change, but what tools do we already have at our disposal to actually affect that change? A number of new technologies and ideas are likely to dominate the conversation about plastics in the coming months and years.

Key to any viable plastic waste strategy is learning to “do more with less.” We don’t have the capacity to get rid of plastic altogether, nor would we want to, but we do need to reduce our dependence on virgin plastic. Among other things, that means shifting away from single-use plastic to reusables.

Reusables represent a vast untapped market that has the potential to encourage both private sector innovation and consumer engagement. Of course, in order to work on a large-scale, we would need to agree on some standards. What exactly makes something re-usable? What environmental impacts are acceptable for re-usable packing and products? What safety and cleaning requirements—a concern that is obviously top of mind for everyone right now—are necessary to ensure human health and well-being? Such guardrails, far from having a chilling effect on business, would establish the enabling conditions for companies to create, evolve and usher in the Big Ideas that will benefit people, nature and their bottom line.

Plastic crediting is another idea that is quickly gaining ground. In theory, plastic credits are transferable units representing a specific quantity of plastic that has been collected and possibly recycled from the environment. Plastic credits could allow producers to offset some of their plastic footprint by financing efforts to tackle the plastic waste challenge, potentially representing an additional activity to reduce plastic emissions. However, this again is only currently in theory. Plastic crediting systems pose many risks if they are not developed appropriately; environmental and social safeguards must be established and adhered to. As crediting systems develop, WWF calls on them to contribute to meaningful, systemic change through continuous improvement, support of circular systems and progress towards comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility.

In the best-case scenario, plastic credits would help foster investment in a circular economy. In the worst-case scenario, plastic credits could provide cover for companies to continue business-as-usual while paying lip service to sustainability. An effective plastic crediting scheme would require unprecedented transparency, along with agreed-upon standards and processes. Even then, producers should see plastic credits as a way to complement, not supplement, more robust plastic waste mitigation solutions.

Clearly, there is no silver bullet to our plastic waste problem. It’s taken humanity a half-century and numerous short-sighted decisions to dig the hole we now find ourselves in. We’ll need long-term thinking, strong political will and a diverse array of tools to dig ourselves out. The work starts now.

 

Erin Simon leads WWF’s packaging and material science program where she works with business and industry to help them make informed, sustainable material choices for their products and packaging.

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