Five steps to prepare for a new global plastic pollution treaty

By next year, we should have our first international treaty on plastic pollution. It’s the treaty we’ve been waiting for — a stringent, legally binding agreement to slash both plastic production and pollution. 

Between May 29 and June 3, nations will meet to negotiate the finer points of this historic treaty. This will be the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, the latest milestone in a journey that began last year. 

The resolution, which acts as a foundation for the treaty, was endorsed in March 2022 at the United Nations Environment Assembly. It addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, from production to disposal.

What can we expect the final agreement to cover?

The final treaty should cover many different avenues for tackling the regarding plastic pollution crisis, including: 

  • Cutting back on how much plastic nations produce; 
  • Improving how they manage plastic waste; 
  • Encouraging companies to look at alternatives; 
  • Promoting research and innovation; and 
  • Developing better, more efficient recycling technologies.   

In the months ahead, talks will focus on several key priorities, including what types of plastic the global treaty will cover and what individual countries can do to reduce plastic pollution. Delegates will explore targets for reducing waste, pledges to improve waste management and ways to encourage a wider shift to replace plastic.

Urgent times call for drastic measures

Last year’s resolution was described as a “triumph by planet Earth over plastics.” There’s no doubt it’s a major breakthrough. But won’t be enough. 

Countries must now work together to reduce plastic pollution and align with planetary boundaries for current and future generations. We need urgent action, and companies, governments and consumers must play their part.   

Here are five strategic steps that companies should be taking to prepare for the signing of the treaty: 

1. Measure your plastic footprint  

How much plastic does your company produce? How much of it escapes into the environment? Measuring your plastic footprint, you can get a clear picture of impacts, risks and opportunities for improvement, putting you in a better position to draw up effective action plans that drastically and systemically reduce single-use plastic packaging — and plastic more broadly.

2. See the big picture 

Instead of focusing only on your carbon footprint, take a holistic approach. Think about all the different ways you’re affecting the environment to avoid trade-offs between one environmental impact and another. Explore water consumption and pollution. Look at land use and biodiversity.   

3. Work with government and Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) schemes 

Support state initiatives designed to better manage plastic waste. Encourage alternative materials and promote recycling. Participate in establishing the infrastructure needed to make a circular economy for plastics possible. 

4. Innovate for change

Explore ways to minimize the use of plastic by reevaluating packaging designs. Harness eco-design to develop plastic alternatives that are biodegradable, compostable, or easily recycled, and reduce plastic pollution across a product’s entire life cycle, all while striving for circularity. You can invest in start-ups and develop new, more sustainable solutions.    

5. Don’t leave your plastic behind 

Improve your product end-of-life strategy. Roll out efficient recycling and take-back schemes. Explore new recycling technologies.

Collaboration gets results, but it can be tough

Businesses have a key part to play in ending plastic pollution. It starts with tangible steps to mitigate environmental impacts. But when it comes to agreeing on what these steps should be, things can get complicated. 

Looking at the treaty negotiations, there are various sticking points. Countries have different positions on things like: 

  • What targets to set for reducing plastic waste? 
  • Which products to ban?  
  • How to regulate industries, or work with other nations?  
  • Where to get money to pay for sustainable solutions? 

What’s more, plastic pollution varies from country to country — and so is the infrastructure to deal with it. A target may seem easily achievable to a country with good waste management infrastructure in place, but could be very ambitious to countries without it. This gives way to some additional considerations: How can we make these targets realistic for everyone? Does it make sense for everyone to have the same targets? How can we best support countries in meeting these targets?

Most countries can agree on one core idea: we must take urgent action to tackle plastic pollution. But some call for tougher measures, while others lean towards a more moderate approach (to cushion the economy). 

Similar dynamics are at play in the business world. Some companies support tighter regulations, especially if it paves the way for fairer competition. Others worry about how much these new laws will cost them or affect their ability to innovate.   

We’re seeing companies play an active role in global negotiations. Some are working with governments and non-government bodies to find solutions. While there are different perspectives, there’s no illusion about the problems we face. 

One thing is certain: it’ll be hard to move forward unless we all move together.

It’s time to act 

Mass plastic production threatens the environment and public health around the world. Around 460M tons are produced each year, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Half of that plastic ends up in landfills, and less than a fifth is recycled.  

If we fail to act, the amount of plastic we produce could triple by 2060. It may not grab as many headlines, but plastic pollution has dramatic, far-reaching consequences on biodiversity, human health, water and climate change. 

Plastic waste can take hundreds of years to decompose, breaking down into microplastics along the way. Microplastic particles and chemicals leached from plastics have infiltrated our soil, groundwater, air, oceans and food systems, with very real consequences for human and environmental health. Plastics also have a direct link to climate change: their manufacture (from fossil fuels), recycling and incineration generate significant carbon emissions. 

Plastic pollution is a major source of physical, transition, liability and reputational risks for business. Consumers and investors expect businesses to take action and are willing to cut ties with those that fail to do so. Reimagining your relationship with plastic through an integrated, science-based plastics strategy minimizes a multitude of risks, drives innovation and makes progress on your overall sustainability strategy.

A new plastics future is possible

There’s no unified vision (yet) for how we solve these problems. The resolution, and the global treaty that will follow, are a giant leap forward, but we still have a long way to go. 

We need a global consensus. Governments, companies and citizens need to stand united in using less plastic and finding new ways to reuse or recycle. 

Working together, there’s still time for us to create a planetary economy.

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