Will the UN beat plastic pollution in Paris?
Recycling isn't enough, a new circular plastic economy must be erected.
By Doug Woodring, Ocean Recovery Alliance, and Steve Russell, SKR Strategies LLC, and a retired plastic industry executive
“The highest and best ambition would be an inclusive strategy to build a circular economy, rather than a collection of tactics and punitive measures to hold polluters to account.”
PARIS (Callaway Climate Insights) — There is no real debate — plastic pollution is a serious threat to human health and the global environment. Next week delegates to the second United Nations intergovernmental negotiating committee will meet at UNESCO World Headquarters in Paris to debate the framework of a global response. Hundreds of national governments, activists and private sector representatives will soon arrive from around the globe, each armed with their wish-lists of solutions on a wide-ranging list of topics. As a result, the agenda currently looks more like a grab bag of separate actions rather than a well-considered strategy.
This is not to say those ideas — like eliminating wasteful uses of plastic and developing reuse models — won’t help reduce plastic waste. But they do nothing to address the vast majority of plastic products and packaging that we will continue to use in the decades to come. They also don’t require a global agreement and can be more effective if developed locally.
A more important — and ambitious — focus for the U.N. delegates would be to pursue policies and support systems for recycling which capture, process and deliver the plastic waste which societies will continue to generate. In other words: build a sustainable global circular economy.
What should be the key deliverables?
A strategic plan to build a global circular economy, so the products we need can be made from recycled plastic or renewable materials. This means helping to collect, process and deliver used materials to producers so they can be reused. That logistical capability simply doesn’t exist today on a global scale. Places with large volumes of uncollected or unprocessed used plastic material need to be connected with entities equipped to return that material to useful products.
Rather than prolonged debate on the right cap or limit, why not build inclusive pathways to transition the informal sector into equitable participation? We still need plastic, for pipes, medical devices, car parts and much more, we just need it to be made from circular feedstock and processed more equitably.
Guidance and capacity to support integrated systems to collect, transport and process used plastic material so it can be used to offset virgin plastic production. In some countries that means bringing old or inadequate systems up to date; in other countries it means just putting the basics of collection in place. This is not the same as just mandating recycled content and hoping it will magically appear. Most producers would make more from recycled content if they could get the materials they need, as the early adopters of circular economy strategies from the consumer goods sector are reporting.
A plan to deploy technology at scale to cost effectively process waste for circular uses in new global supply chains, and that means creating transparent and standard guidelines for trade in used plastic. This is not a return to the “bad old days” of unregulated shipments of low-value mixed used plastic. Instead, this means finding efficient ways to characterize, certify and trade plastic feedstock from locations that produce more than they can process, to facilities with the ability to process it in efficient, scalable ways. It also means designing products for recycling, also while building the capability to reuse or recycle all products. Regional hubs could be created based on trading and processing competencies, while being supported through certification systems and guarantees.
A commitment to prioritize public, institutional and entrepreneurial investment in waste management, paired with policies to incentivize use of recycled content. Studies repeatedly identify waste management as an underfunded infrastructure asset class, particularly compared to energy, transportation and investments where the societal economic benefit is more self-evident. These investments can be guaranteed with positive economic policies like price floors for use of recycled content, long-term supply contracts, and incentives for innovation in new materials, technologies and systems.
Many delegates are urging “high ambition” outcomes. In our view the highest and best ambition would be an inclusive strategy to build a circular economy, rather than a collection of punitive measures designed to “hold polluters to account.” Building the systems we need requires cross-sector cooperation, not confrontation. They need to align business, finance and policy leaders on aspirations, not limits. They also must leverage the knowledge of early adopters and value chain alliances. Simply tweaking the status quo won’t work.
We urge negotiators to work at a higher level, to strategically build resilient global circular economy ecosystems to solve plastic pollution without defaulting to small-ball, tactical solutions. Let’s not miss the chance to deliver lasting change.
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