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Two Steps Forward

Scaling plastic waste solutions

This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

I’m not easily impressed by advances in sustainable business — I’ve been watching them happen in fits and starts for three decades — but I’ll confess to being astounded by what’s going on these days in the world of plastic. Or, more to the point, plastic waste.

And no, it’s not just straws. Indeed, that may be the least of it.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking to activists, brand owners, polymer companies and others about what I call “the war on plastic waste” — where we are, how we got here and where things might be headed — for a story I’ll be reporting next month. I can tell you without reservation that opinions about the future of plastic are all over the map.

Literally. As I’ve spoken with experts in Asia, Europe and North America, I’ve found a world of differences in how companies, activists and others are viewing the problems and solutions.

The differences depend on such variables as a region's existing waste-handling infrastructure, or lack thereof; the kinds of packaging that are most problematic; the level of public understanding and concern over plastic pollution; the types of viable alternatives available, including both advanced materials and new business models; local political leadership; and how much pressure is being felt by companies, particularly brands, to take aggressive action. Some activists and campaigns are focused on creating true closed-loop solutions for single-use packaging, others on keeping microfibers out of the food chain and still others on banning plastic packaging altogether in favor of reusable solutions.

But there’s one area of global agreement: Bold actions need to be taken quickly to stem the tide of plastic waste.

You already know the stats, but some are worth repeating. The world’s consumers buy about 20,000 plastic bottles every second, a number expected to rise 20 percent within three years, according to the Guardian. In a business-as-usual scenario, the world’s ocean are expected to contain a ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish by weight, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Very little plastic is being recycled — only around 9 percent, according to a 2017 study. Another 12 percent is incinerated and the rest, 79 percent, accumulates in landfills or the natural environment, including oceans and other waterways.

I could go on, but you get the point. While plastic waste has been a problem since the anti-litter movement of the 1950s and 60s, all indicators are that we’re headed in the wrong direction, and fast. What once seemed an annoyance and an eyesore is seen increasingly as a crisis tied to nearly every environmental problem: climate change, land use, endangered species, air and water pollution, waste disposal, ocean health, natural resource depletion and, not insignificantly, public health.

Seemingly overnight, but not really, the world has taken notice. The recent spate of bans on plastic straws and lids, for example, appeared to come out of nowhere, though activists had been pushing for years to take such actions.

The explosion of concern about plastics in oceans was, by some accounts, attributable to a three-year-old viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in a nostril, but that only added public pressure to existing concerns and campaigns. In recent months, dozens of brands — from Coke and McDonald’s to Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks and Unilever — have announced bans or phaseouts of some plastic packaging, though, not surprisingly, activists question whether some of these initiatives are enough. And, as I said, while straw bans only scratch the surface in terms of eliminating a source of plastic pollution, they have been an effective means of engaging the public about the plastic problem overall.

All of this represents merely the early stages of a long-term transition that will likely upend the packaging industry, along with its upstream and downstream partners, from polymer manufacturers to brands to waste management companies. Not all of these company and industry initiatives will be fast, or perfect, as Doug Woodring and Tom Domen note, "and the movement from zero percent to 100 percent perfection in a single shift is virtually impossible."

It'll take time, though time is short.

The good news is that several bold initiatives are on the horizon, particularly related to plastic waste originating in Asia, the source of more than 80 percent of all marine plastic pollution. We reported recently on Circulate Capital, a new investment fund focusing on improving the waste-management and recycling infrastructure in Asia. That's a good, albeit modest, start. Meanwhile, global awareness of a circular economy is growing by leaps and bounds, although less so in the United States. (More on this at our VERGE Circular conference in October.)

There’s more on the way, including a significant announcement among some of the world’s biggest brands, to be made at the Our Ocean conference, in Bali in late October. And another big announcement, in January at Davos, could revolutionize the packaging industry, at least for some consumer products.

More on all of this in the coming weeks and months. And, no doubt, years.

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