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Sustainable Packaging 2019

Saving the world 40kgs of plastic at a time

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Herianus

Sarah Harper

Consultant, UNEP


Ran Xie

Associate Programme Officer, UNEP

Images of plastic packaging strewn throughout the environment are commonplace in all types of media. Yet these plastic cups and bags are only symptoms of the bigger need to overhaul the ‘take-make-waste’ economy. The problem is visible and understood but what needs to be done and how can individuals help solve it?

Devastation from plastics and single-use disposables as they enter the human food chain is evident.

At sea, plastic masses form ‘continents’ larger than countries, wildlife is dying, and oceans and air are polluted. Indeed, plastic microparticles are found everywhere on Earth. In social media, plastic straws have become a symbolic call to action. Public outcry for suffering marine life (the iconic sea turtle) is pushing companies and legislators – often after being criticised on social media – to find solutions.

The EU has passed a directive on single use plastics, which foresees bans for specific product categories. Citizens around the world demand better recycling programmes, and companies like Starbucks are abandoning plastic in favour of paper straws… but keeping plastic cups.[1] 

Yet, these efforts do not comprehensively address the root problem – a society and economy based on waste. And some media coverage takes energy away from more effective actions. Innovation and new business models need to be upscaled.

Treating the problem has limited potential – only about 9% has been recycled.[2] But our culture of the ‘take-make-waste’ economy is recent –  nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been produced in the last 18 years.

So, quick action from governments, companies AND individuals to change the plastics culture could work.  

The big picture: change consumption and production systems

The impacts of daily decision making (from government, business and individuals) have a huge potential to make change.

40% of plastic produced globally, or 161 million tonnes, is packaging, used once and thrown away. That’s almost 40kgs of plastic waste every year per person.

Decision makers – both public and private – are coming together to develop needed solutions – from regulations to innovation and cocreation for new business models (as exemplified at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit last week in NYC).

Like global leaders, citizens, too, can make a difference. Individuals can choose and demand more sustainable options to live their lives and they can ask action from governments and companies to set standards and offer products that do not harm the environment.

For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works with partners to achieve what’s known as a circular economy for plastics, by eliminating unnecessary plastics, developing high value and needed plastics, and keeping them out of incinerators, landfills and the environment. 

Over 400 institutions, including 16 governments, 200 businesses of the plastic packaging value chain (jointly representing over 20% of all plastic packaging used globally), 26 financial institutions with around US$4.2 trillion assets, and six investors committed to invest about USD 275 million, have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This collaboration between UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy think tank, encourages businesses and governments to focus their attention on those actions that can lead to the most significant benefits in tackling plastics pollution. 

[1] Additional statistic: We produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year – almost equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. 8 million tonnes of that enters the ocean every year. And what goes in the ocean, goes in you.

[2] Science Advances article: first global analysis of all plastics ever made—and their fate. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. (Learn about one possible future solution.) Roland Geyer, the study’s lead author.

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