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Consumer Goods Giants Mull International Plastic Pollution Treaty

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While many of the world’s consumer goods giants—along with the majority of UN member countries—support a global treaty on plastic pollution, the creation of any serious framework will depend on the United States and China signing on to the agreement.

“Plastic is now viewed as the worst material used for consumer goods,” writes [1] Politico. A recent global consumer survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) showed that 65% of global consumers associate it with ocean pollution, and 57% describe it as “harmful.”

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With plastic (and particularly plastic packaging) having so clearly lost its sheen, 30 consumer goods giants including PepsiCo, Unilever, Starbucks, and H&M are calling for a global treaty to curb plastics pollution—a call also supported by the World Wildlife Fund and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“Consistent plans across markets and geographies will drive the systemic change that is needed to create a circular economy and empower stakeholders through the full plastics value chain to take decisive and immediate action,” a PepsiCo spokesperson told Politico.

But hampering such action is the “everyone or no one” part of that equation. Unless the world’s largest plastic producers—the United States and China—sign on to the treaty, “political capital probably won’t be spent negotiating a serious framework,” Politico writes.

While the outgoing Trump administration would have been “unlikely to sign on,” China’s domestic efforts to reduce plastic pollution suggest that they are “a maybe,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. (Politico’s post was published October 20, and made no reference to the policies of what was then still a hypothetical Biden administration in the U.S.)

With much less to lose in the game of plastics production, the European Union is onboard, as are the majority of the UN’s 193 member countries.

To actually tackle the desperate problem [3] of plastic waste, BCG managing director and partner Shalini Unnikrishnan told Politico a global plastics treaty could “help coordinate funding for infrastructure, particularly in less developed countries where there aren’t robust systems for collecting, processing, and recycling waste.” Another benefit would be the creation of an urgently needed uniform standard for companies and countries to measure up to.

But beyond the matter of getting everyone to sign on, writes Politico, is the question that “bedevils” all international agreements: “who pays, and how much”. It’s a particularly vexed for a plastics treaty since its target substance, like greenhouse emissions, does not respect national borders.

Meanwhile, fighting a rearguard action against plastics regulations large and small is Big Oil and its petrochemical derivatives. Case in point, writes Politico, is the effort by some 70 American business groups, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Plastics Industry Association, to pressure the Canadian government into overturning its ban on single-use plastics, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of next year.

In a letter written to several Canadian cabinet ministers, the plastics lobbyists argue that the ban “clearly meets the definition of a non-tariff barrier,” and is therefore in violation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

While Big Plastic and Big Petrochemical talk a big game about their commitment to recycling, Politico points to a recent Reuters special report finding [4] that, “overall, the industry’s future investments in making new plastic dwarf those aimed at reducing waste.”

And yet, in the face of the colossal, pandemic-driven surge in single-use plastic waste and the resulting retreat from plastic bag bans in multiple jurisdictions, some lawmakers are forging ahead, with New Jersey officials in September passing the most sweeping ban on single-use plastics in U.S. history.

“That made New Jersey the ninth state to ban single-use plastic bags, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont (although Maine and Oregon have temporarily suspended their laws),” writes Politico.