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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Curbing Plastic Consumption Will Require Drastic Measures — and Business Should Lead the Charge

bales of plastic waste - plastic consumption

By 2050, plastic consumption in the world’s top economies could be almost twice what it was in 2019. And it's not even on track to peak this century. That’s according to a new report from Back to Blue, a multi-year joint initiative from the Economist Impact and the Nippon Foundation. Researchers from the initiative say it's possible to avoid an extreme plastic waste crisis through “bold and sweeping reforms" — and they’re urging U.N. countries to enact multiple stringent and binding policy changes.

But while pushback is expected from certain industries, “Peak Plastics: Bending the Consumption Curve” demonstrates that — when it comes to curbing the tide of plastic pollution that is barreling down the pipeline — there is no room for half-measures. Rather, businesses must choose long-term purpose over profit and lead a cultural change away from single-use plastics.

No single policy can do it alone

Back to Blue researchers used modeling to determine the effectiveness of three different policies that are being considered for inclusion in the U.N. Treaty on Plastic Pollution, compared to the business-as-usual scenario that would lead to 451 million metric tons of new plastic consumption per year by 2050. The forthcoming U.N. treaty is the culmination of agreements made in March 2022 that will bind 175 countries to its stipulations. Negotiations are in progress, and policies should be implemented by the end of next year. 

Researchers chose the three policies deemed to have the most potential to affect total plastic consumption for modeling: taxes on the production of new plastics, measures for extended producer responsibility, known as “polluter pays," and a ban on single-use plastics. They found that no single policy would be capable of substantially curtailing the problem by itself.

Multiple measures needed to curb avalanche of plastic consumption

Banning single-use plastics proved to be the most beneficial of the three policies. Under that scenario, plastic consumption in 2050 would be roughly 1.5 times what it was in 2019 ⸺ as opposed to the 1.73 times that can be expected if nothing is done. Likewise, if a tax on new plastics were the only strategy implemented, it would still lead to 1.57 times more plastic produced each year by 2050. A “polluter pays” policy would also do little on its own, with consumption increasing 1.66 times.

Put together, implementing all three strategies would lower the increase to 1.25 times 2019 levels. However, the study’s authors doubt that the U.N. treaty will ultimately have the teeth needed to force the trajectory of plastic consumption downward.

"This report confirms that an urgent, global effort is needed to stop the flood of plastic pollution at its source,” David Azoulay, director of environmental health at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement announcing the report. “The entire lifecycle of plastics, from feedstock extraction and production of plastic precursors to disposal, must be addressed by the future, legally binding U.N. treaty to end plastic pollution. The policy levers examined in this report will not be sufficient: bolder action is needed, including globally coordinated tax mechanisms coupled with ambitious caps on virgin plastic production."

Negotiators must maintain 'the highest levels of ambition'

Of course, neither the petrochemical industry nor producers of consumer goods will take such changes lying down. Like all regulations that threaten profits, they will likely fight tooth and nail against any limits that affect their bottom lines.

"Negotiators of the U.N. plastics treaty must maintain the highest levels of ambition possible when entering the next round of negotiations, and industry needs to play a constructive, not obstructive, role in reaching a deal,” Charles Goddard, editorial director of Economist Impact, said in a statement. “So far, commitments by industry, retailers and brands to reduce plastic waste are short on detail and have failed to materialize. We have to slow the soaring production of single-use plastic. Only a bold suite of legally-binding policies will result in plastic consumption peaking by mid-century."

Making room for purpose and creative solutions

The transition away from plastic consumption will be painful at first, but it also presents an opportunity for leadership. Businesses that value purpose and choose to make the most out of coming policy changes could see elevated brand loyalty — especially among Gen Z consumers — as well as increased competitiveness when it comes to securing talent and even potentially higher profits in the long run.

The policy changes that are being considered for the U.N. treaty could also increase the market share of certain industries and products as consumers adjust to a world without plastic take-out containers and bottled water. In fact, while an entire cultural overhaul will be necessary, businesses with a strong sense of purpose can help lead the charge by offering innovative products and strategies to help the planet recover from our plastic addiction. Regardless of how business reacts, the U.N. must move forward with drastic new regulations.

Image credit: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop. 

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