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Most companies are fumbling their 2025 plastic waste targets

The world is off track to tackle plastic pollution. Here's what business must do now, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

A plastic duck sits inside a target.

A plastic duck sits inside a target. Source: Pexels/icon0

Companies signed up to a global, UN-backed plastic corporate commitment are on course to miss a host of voluntary 2025 targets spanning circularity and virgin plastic use, putting the world's broader ambitions to drive down plastic pollution at risks, a progress report published this week has warned.

Released Tuesday, an assessment of the first five years since the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Global Commitment on plastic waste first came into being notes that firms signed up to the initiative — which represent around 20 percent of the world's plastic packaging industry — have significantly outperformed their peers outside the commitment in tackling plastic waste.

Yet even despite that progress, the circular economy NGO's progress report also warns that these companies signed up to the initiative are still likely to miss their clutch of 2025 targets agreed to as part of the Global Commitment.

Thought to be the biggest global voluntary effort to tackle plastic pollution and waste upon its launch in 2018, more than 1,000 organizations have backed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Global Commitment, which is backed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

All business and government signatories of the Global Commitment have agreed to set targets specific to each step of their value chain for 2025 to boost the recyclability, compostability and reusability of their packaging, and to publicly report progress every year.

Big companies such as Unilever, Nestle and Coke must now finally admit that recycling is failing to address the dire impacts of their dependence on plastic.

But Sander Defruyt, plastics initiative lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said while today's report demonstrated progress had been made over the past five years, far more action was needed from companies both inside and outside the initiative to meet both near and long-term plastic waste reduction goals.

"We now know that progress to tackling plastic waste at a global scale is possible, and where the key hurdles are that are preventing further change," he said. "But the world remains far off track from fixing the plastic pollution crisis. The international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution currently being negotiated, alongside accelerated business action, are now needed. We can't pick or choose from either of these measures — both are crucial to ensure progress is pushed further and faster."

The Global Commitment requires brands, retailers, and packaging manufacturers to ensure 100 percent of their plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and for them to increase the share of post-consumer recycled content across all plastic packaging used. It also requires signatories to cut the use of virgin plastic in packaging, move from single-use towards reuse models, and eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, among other goals.

But the report predicts that, at the current rate of progress, as many as 20 trillion flexible packaging items - such as wrappers, pouches and sachets — could still end up in the ocean by 2040 unless more ambitious binding policy and regulatory measures are paired with stronger business action. 

The report also highlights the significant climate benefits from reducing virgin plastic use. It estimates that increasing the use of recycled plastics by 1.5 million tonnes per year could save the equivalent of a barrel of oil every two seconds, helping to avoid 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

It comes amid continuing negotiations over establishing a new, legally-binding global treaty to tackle plastic waste and pollution. Hundreds of nations have backed plans to develop such a treaty, but there remains significant differences over how it should be designed, and how it should seek to combat the problem.

But Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of UNEP's industry and economy division, said today's progress report demonstrated that plastic pollution could be curbed by businesses, by helping to shed light on "the 'pain points' that need to be addressed to get the system redesign right".

Matching the scale of this crisis means phasing out single use plastics and transitioning to reuse and refill systems.

"More than half — 53 percent — of reporting government signatories have set quantitative targets to accelerate progress on reusability, and to promote systems redesign to favor more recyclable and where relevant compostable alternatives," she explained. 

"The ongoing negotiation for an international legally binding instrument is a chance to agree the rules, measures, and incentives for an enabling environment to end plastic pollution. Governments, businesses, and all relevant stakeholders must act with unity to ensure we do not miss this historic opportunity."

However, Louise Edge, global corporate campaign lead at Greenpeace UK claimed the "clear lesson" from the Commitment's five year review today was that current, voluntary approaches to tackle the plastics crisis are failing.

"In the five years since the Global Commitment launched it's become more and more obvious how harmful plastic is to our health, to our wildlife, to our communities and to our climate," she said. "And yet in parallel signatory companies' collective plastic use has continued to rise and its production is set to skyrocket.

"Big companies such as Unilever, Nestle and Coke must now finally admit that recycling is failing to address the dire impacts of their dependence on plastic. And that matching the scale of this crisis means phasing out single use plastics and transitioning to reuse and refill systems. That has to start with companies ending the sale of the highly-polluting plastic sachets which are flooding the Global South, contaminating local neighborhoods and waterways."

The report comes weeks after a a separate study by consultancy Systemiq claimed that a robust global plastic policy regime could reduce the amount of plastic that is mismanaged annually by 90 percent, while also delivering a 30 percent drop in fossil fueled plastic production within 17 years.

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