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Business should take these 3 actions to bolster the global plastics treaty

Fresh from the treaty talks in Ottawa, two new reports outline a path forward in the fight against plastic pollution.

Canada's capital was the site of the latest talks over a global plastics treaty.

Canada's capital was the site of the latest talks over a global plastics treaty. Credit: GreenBiz/Sophia Davirro

The process toward a Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution is at a critical juncture. The first four negotiating meetings are in the rearview mirror. The next comes in November in South Korea.

At the latest meetings in Ottawa in April, two groups offered useful guidance for business and policymakers to advance toward an expected final treaty in December.

Why now?

Only globally coordinated action that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics can meaningfully address plastic pollution in the coming decades, according to new reports from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and advisory firm Systemiq.

"Despite a growing sense of urgency to mitigate and prevent the multitude of adverse consequences of plastic pollution, current policies have fallen short in altering trends in plastic flows and pollution significantly," the OECD said in its interim report

Systemiq’s report, "Plastic Treaty Futures," delves deeply "into the environmental, economic and social ramifications" of four treaty scenarios, said Yoni Shiran, plastic lead at the B-Corp-certified company.

What are the key takeaways?

The scenario modeling from both the OECD and Systemiq point to the need for global action among nations and addresses the entire lifecycle of plastics, not only waste management. These four policy recommendations emerged::

  • Act now on plastic pollution: There is no time to waste. The two reports vary slightly here, but each projects a significant increase — of either 50 percent (OECD) or 87 percent (Systemiq) — in mismanaged plastic waste by 2040 from 2019 levels. This involves informal dumpsites, open burning and pollution in land and water. 
  • Coordinate among countries, or risk a rising tide of pollution: With only country-by-country efforts in place, yet no global agreement on production and waste management, plastics production will increase significantly between 2020 and 2040. Improved downstream waste management will only slightly stem the tide of pollution.
  • Intervene through the entire lifecycle: With business-as-usual, production and consumption could increase by at least 70 percent percent between 2020 and 2040. Both reports call for globally-coordinated policies to reduce virgin plastic.
  • Don’t swallow the fears about economic disruption: Even a significant drop in plastic production is unlikely to make economic activity or jobs plummet. Instead, economic activity would shift toward circular business models and materials management. However, the largest costs will affect "fast-growing countries with less advanced management systems," the OECD wrote.   

What can (and should) companies do?

Most sustainability professionals agree that global action across the entire lifecycle of plastics is key to reducing pollution. This is why hundreds of companies have signed onto the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty and most large consumer goods brands have set virgin-plastic reduction targets, efforts the reports back up. 

The question, then, is what role should companies play to ensure that the plastic treaty is effective? Having observed the negotiations in Ottawa, I recommend these three actions:

  1. Consider joining the more than 200 members of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty to influence the final treaty language.
  2. Learn from your industry organizations about their positioning and stance on the treaty negotiations. If you disagree, tell them. Fossil fuel industry lobbyists have a big and growing influence in the process. Make known your company’s high ambitions for a treaty.
  3. Prepare now. The final multilateral agreement on plastic pollution is likely to trigger national plans and policies, financing mechanisms to support the transition and future Conference of Parties (COP) meetings that guide global action. Learn what is coming and prepare to comply.

[Continue the conversation on climate policy at Circularity 24 (May 22-24, Chicago), the leading conference for professionals building the circular economy.]

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