Despite rising concern over the global plastic pollution crisis, the amount of plastic entering the environment has continued apace. Public pressure has resulted in a weak patchwork of nation-based regulations and voluntary efforts, but they have failed to stem the tide. Now a group of global corporations has joined together to support a coordinated, treaty-based circular economy strategy through the United Nations. The question is, will it succeed where others have failed?
The new plastic pollution effort launched last week under a partnership between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, WWF and the firm Boston Consulting Group, following a jointly authored report, The Business Case for a UN Treaty. “Despite a doubling of voluntary initiatives and national regulations over the last five years, plastic waste continues to leak into the environment at alarming rates – with more than 11 million [metric tons] of plastic flowing into our oceans each year,” explain the partners.
However, the effort to support a circular economy has been outrun by the bottom-up demand for plastic. A more intensive, top-down approach is needed.
“A binding global agreement that builds on the vision of a circular economy for plastic can ensure a unified international response to plastic pollution that matches the scale of the problem,” explained Ellen MacArthur, who is founder and chair of Trustees of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The proposed treaty on plastic pollution would coordinate regulations among nations and require those nations to set targets and develop action plans.
The treaty would also establish agreed-upon methods and metrics, and recruit support for innovation and new infrastructure.
The prospects for the success of such a venture would have been dim just a few years ago. However, recent improvements in bio-based alternatives have helped to set the stage for an international treaty that promotes commercial innovation.
In addition, the emergence of next-generation petrochemical recycling technology is raising the possibility of reclaiming hard-to-recycle plastics including foam, polyethylene, and dirty or mixed waste.
U.S. policy makers have already spotted the potential for economic development in that field. In one recent move, the Department of Energy awarded $11.6 million to the University of Delaware to support its new Center for Plastics Innovation.
The research will help support efforts to make 100 percent recyclable products inside and outside of the single-use plastic packaging field. That trend has already emerged in the footwear area, with Adidas’ 100 percent recyclable shoe initiative being just one recent example.
Just last week, the Energy Department also committed a new round of $27 million in funding to support 12 new projects in the field of next-generation plastic recycling. The 12 projects represent a range of new technologies including new formulations and bio-based materials.
In addition, some large-scale plastic packaging users are no longer depending on their supply chains to develop recycled plastic sources. They are actively financing and supporting R&D projects that provide them with more sustainable materials and feedstocks.
One recent example is L’Oreal, which has partnered with the French bio-industry research firm Carbios on molecular-scale recycling technology for PET bottles.
Another indication of the potential for new economic activity in the high tech recycling space is indicated by a bill currently before the Pennsylvania State Senate.
The bill, which has already passed the Pennsylvania House, would take next-generation recycling facilities out of the generic “recycling” category and reclassify them as manufacturing facilities. The shift recognizes the vast technology gulf between conventional plastic waste-to-energy incineration and modern pyrolysis technology.
Unlike incineration, pyrolysis is a closed, low emission (or potentially zero emission) process that melts plastic into a reusable pellet-form feedstock. Pyrolysis can also be used to reclaim plastic for liquid fuel.
The energy needed to power the process is also getting a sustainability makeover. In one example, researchers are exploring the potential to deploy recovered pyrolysis gas and molten salt from a concentrating solar power system.
Pennsylvania’s support for next-generation plastic recycling is particularly interesting because the state is part of an ongoing Energy Department plan to establish five major new petrochemical facilities in the area, leveraging Appalachian shale gas resources.
The plan was already beginning to unravel as overbuilding in the global petrochemical industry ran into the COVID-19 crisis. If the recycling bill is signed into law — which appears likely — growth in the pyrolysis industry would further undermine the demand for virgin shale gas in the region.
Still another recent development is the support of leading producers and buyers of plastic. Recycling, reclaiming, and reusing are all important steps to reduce plastic pollution, but a permanent solution to the problem will lean heavily on cutting off the plastic pollution problem at the source.
To that end, WWF, the MacArthur Foundation and BCG have recruited the support of more than two dozen global companies that serve as pipelines for much of the world’s plastic packaging.
These companies have already taken on the plastic pollution challenge on a variety of fronts, including reducing their use of plastic packaging and designing packages for reuse instead of disposal.
The list includes the packaging producer Amcor and the chemical company Borealis, along with familiar brands in food production such as Danone, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Unilever. The global retail industry is also represented, by H&M and the supermarket chains Tesco and Woolworths, among others.
Consumer support is another element that has been missing from plastic reduction movement. It is difficult to change individual habits, as evidenced by the achingly low rate of recycling participation in many parts of the U.S.
Nevertheless, consumer involvement is essential for the shift from single-use packaging to refillable and reusable packaging, and there are signs that support to tackle plastic pollution is growing.
Due to the efforts of WWF, numerous other organizations and business leaders in a wide range of fields, public awareness of the plastic pollution crisis has become part of the mainstream public conversation in recent years.
“The issue of plastic pollution is ranked among the top three environmental concerns globally,” explains The Business Case for a UN Treaty. “With growing scientific evidence of the environmental and social impacts of plastic pollution, public interest in the topic has spiked in recent years.”
The report identifies 2017 as an “inflection point.”
“Plastic is now viewed as the most negative material used for consumer goods items, with 65 percent of global consumers associating it with ocean pollution and 57 percent deeming it harmful,” the report states.
In tandem with growing public concern over the impacts of climate change, support for action on plastic pollution has nowhere to go but up.
That seals the business case. Now it’s up to consumers and business leaders to take their case to policy makers, here in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Image credit: Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.