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Sustainable Packaging 2019

Banning plastic straws won’t save the ocean; collective action will

iStock . Getty Images Plus / rainyrf

Kristin Hughes

Director of the Global Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum

Plastic packaging has become almost entirely unavoidable. Eating on the go? The option is often a Styrofoam takeaway container, permeated with grease and therefore non-recyclable. Travelling? The hotel’s shampoo often comes in tiny, non-reusable bottles. Buying a loaf of bread? Even paper bags are fitted with a plastic window.

The statistics are well-known: at least 8 million metric tons of plastic waste flow into the ocean every year. Much of it is plastic packaging, which has an astonishingly short life span: only 14% is collected for recycling, while the rest becomes waste.

Plastic pollution has become a global challenge — not just an environmental one, but also a humanitarian one: the build-up of plastic waste has triggered floods and public health crises across the world, putting vulnerable populations — particularly women and children — at heightened risk.

So, why is single-use plastic packaging so often our only choice? Why has the wasteful mantra of ‘take, use, and discard’ become our collective way of life? And how can we break free of this cycle and encourage more sustainable packaging?

The answer to solving the plastic pollution crisis isn’t to eradicate plastic altogether. Rather, it’s to rethink the way we make, use, and dispose of plastic packaging. It means transitioning the world to a circular economy for plastics — one in which plastic products like bottles and food containers can be recycled, regenerated, and reused, saving them from a landfill or the ocean.

Here’s how businesses, governments, and consumers can drive this transition from concept to reality.

Businesses must transform their supply chains

To achieve the transition to greater sustainability and environmental responsibility, we need businesses onboard and encouragingly, some are starting to engage meaningfully.

For example, industry giants like The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo have signaled a clear willingness to pioneer a new approach to sustainable packaging. Coca-Cola has pledged to adopt 100% recyclable packaging by 2025, while PepsiCo has made similar commitments, vowing to shift to exclusively using recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable packaging for its products by 2025.

Both companies are also exploring refill stations that eliminate single-use packaging altogether.

They, along with Nestlé, Dow, and the governments of the UK and Canada, have been instrumental in working with the World Economic Forum to co-found the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), a public-private platform that helps leaders translate commitments into action in addressing the plastic waste pollution crisis.

Governments must incentivise sustainable packaging

Across the world, reducing plastic pollution is rising to the top of national agendas. Policymakers from both developing and developed nations are looking for solutions and taking steps to implement national action plans to tackle the issue.

To build the infrastructure needed to transition to a circular economy, governments must first create an enabling environment.

This includes crafting policy incentives for innovative business models, investing in research and development toward sustainable packaging, supporting a recycling-focused infrastructure and then sharing best practices with others.

Indonesia has announced ambitious targets to cut marine plastic debris 70% by 2025. The lessons gleaned from this effort will inform similar plastic waste reduction strategies across the ASEAN region.

Similarly, Ghana, where staggering levels of waste have become a significant impediment on economic growth, is set to launch a new GPAP partnership. The effective strategies drawn from this engagement could catalyse action throughout Africa.

Consumers must advocate for a new packaging economy

There is a surprisingly common phrase among consumers discussing plastic waste: They usually announce with pride that they’ve stopped using plastic straws.

Some might ask how saving a few straws could make a discernible impact in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the impact is nascent, but the statement is symbolic.

Increasingly, people are more aware of the scale of the plastic pollution problem. Many have adopted small lifestyle changes, like bringing shopping bags to the store. But we can – and must – do much more to effect change at a greater scale.

Now is the time to promote the importance of sustainable packaging and to press our governments and the brands we love to implement change. We need to push for commitments, targets, and concrete action to make our world a healthier, more equitable, more liveable one.

With collective action, we can produce positive change.

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