A child walks through a plastic waste dump in Nicaragua. (Image: Hermes Rivera/Unsplash)
Governments, advocacy groups, businesses, and nonprofits will gather in Paris today for a second round of negotiations on the Global Plastics Treaty. This legally-binding international treaty would potentially phase out virgin plastic production and prevent plastic pollution through technical waste management solutions.
While treaty negotiations involve parties from different sectors and countries, one group of stakeholders is noticeably absent from the talks: the entrepreneurs and innovators working to solve the plastic waste crisis.
Dozens of entrepreneurs and startups have been working on plastic pollution mitigation and cleanup for years. Their absence from current negotiations puts the implementation of a Global Plastics Treaty at risk, says Peter Hjemdahl, co-founder and chief innovation officer of the Innovation Alliance for a Global Plastics Treaty. Championed by rePurpose Global and the Ocean Cleanup, the Innovation Alliance is pushing to bring innovators and entrepreneurs to the negotiating table.
“At the first negotiations for the plastics treaty in Uruguay in December, we realized that rePurpose was the only representative of the innovation ecosystem that could even make it there," Hjemdahl said. "There were advocacy organizations, trade associations and lobbyists, but it was so glaringly lacking that the solutionists and innovators were not present in negotiations.”
The process to receive the accreditation needed to participate in U.N. negotiations is restrictive, and Hjemdahl claims it favors NGOs over for-profit companies. While big businesses can gain access through the trade groups and lobbyists that represent their interests, entrepreneurs and startups can become locked out. “That’s why we decided to come together to form an alliance," Hjemdahl said. "We wanted to elevate the perspectives of those closest to tackling plastic waste, and we want to ensure that the global treaty lives up to its promised potential.”
The Global Plastics Treaty has the potential to alter the trajectory of the plastic waste crisis. Only 9 percent of plastics are recycled globally today. And recycling is not without risks to human health and the environment.
Of the more than 13,000 chemicals added to plastic, only 128 are internationally regulated. Studies about human health and environmental impacts are still underway, and more research is needed. “Plastic action is a rapidly evolving landscape," Hjemdahl said. "There is so much yet to learn about plastics. We just last year learned that plastic is in our bloodstreams. It’s an evolving space, so data is critical, even to understand the magnitude of the problem, and we need to understand the size of the problem before we can understand how much money is needed to help solve it.”
Some scientists recommend that the Global Plastics Treaty cover the creation of a comprehensive list of plastic chemicals, with information about toxicity and other impacts. With this information, signatory countries could begin phasing out the plastic chemicals most toxic to humans and the environment, many of which are used commonly in daily life. Improving plastic labeling to clarify plastic chemicals present in products is already a central point to treaty negotiations.
While many countries advocate for a legally-binding structure for the Global Plastics Treaty, the United States is petitioning for a softer, more voluntary approach. However, the U.S. produces more plastic waste than any other country in the world, and the lack of global regulation in the plastics sector has already contributed to the ongoing plastic waste crisis.
“Until recently, in the regulatory ecosystem, there has been a complete policy vacuum of plastic pollution remediation," Hjemdahl said. "The startups in this space have not looked to regulation as a source of help, inspiration or even alignment. It wasn’t there.”
For Hjemdahl, the treaty negotiation process will not be comprehensive or complete without the input of innovators. With over 60 organizations that employ tens of thousands of people around the world, Hjemdahl feels the Innovation Alliance has access to the data, community, and technologies essential for the success of the Global Plastics Treaty.
“The Innovation Alliance wants the treaty to be pragmatic and inclusive and include the innovations already on the ground," he said. "Our partners collect data about the plastic intensity of companies and even legacy pollution. We have data that tracks river emissions of plastics into oceans, and the movement of plastics in ocean gyres."
The alliance represents members from around the world and at all stages of the plastic solutions ecosystem. "Our alliance is not just for Silicon Valley or technologists," Hjemdahl said. "We are also zero-waste stores in India and waste-worker welfare organizations in Bangalore. We are more than software and tech. Our alliance also values Indigenous knowledge, and as solutionists, we are calling for support and recognition from the treaty process.”
“We all interact with plastic pollution on a daily basis, and we can all see the impacts on the environment," Hjemdahl said. "Consumer awareness and pressure made plastic pollution a hot topic globally. We had our collective David Attenborough moment. We saw the picture of the straw stuck in the turtle’s nose. It may feel distant now, but if we think back to that, we can recognize the importance of that consumer movement."
Still, there is a gap between the innovators working on the ground with plastic remediation and the policymakers who negotiate the future of the international treaty. If leaders don't close it, that gap could threaten the chance to reach a meaningful treaty at a moment of momentum.
“We have to understand the downside of what happens if we don’t sustain this movement," Hjemdahl continued. "It would be catastrophic for the world, human health, ecosystems and the climate, and it puts companies at a long-term risk. How do customers perceive businesses that don’t take action on plastic? What is the regulatory risk for those industries that do nothing?"
It’s regulatory risk that likely has the greatest power to propel these issues forward, he argued. "Everyone stands to be impacted by the outcomes of these discussions," he said. "This is why we need the Innovation Alliance. Someone has to build the bridge between business and policy. The regulatory instruments that policymakers create need to not just sound good on paper, but they need to be future-proof.”
Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship.