2018’s Earth Day, World Environment Day and World Oceans Day all focused on the theme of beating plastic pollution through prevention and solution provision, highlighting not only the severity of the issue but also the rapid increased awareness. We see ocean plastics as a significant risk for companies and are engaging them, where relevant, on the topic.
Plastic is a useful and valuable resource – but the pollution linked with it is destructive, and ultimately unnecessary. Runaway plastic waste has a significant negative impact on the environment and ecosystems, and is harmful to human health. Furthermore, we firmly believe it is “bad for business” as it can lead to missed cost savings opportunities from recycling, as well as brand damage. With millennials and younger generations driving a significant generational shift in how we think about the future, the protection of brand reputation is increasingly paramount to the long-term success of a business.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at the current rate of pollution, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050 (by weight), with at least eight million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean annually. Studies have found that half the plastic produced is single use, with packaging being the largest contributor – accounting for close to 40% of total plastic use1 (14% of all litter comes from beverage containers, not including tops and labels, which would raise the percentage if included).
Sea birds and marine animals like turtles, dolphins and seals can easily get caught in plastic bags, old fishing nets and other debris. They, as well as fish, are also eating plastic, mistaking it for food, which can lead to starvation and malnutrition, as well as plastic also entering the human food chain. In 2016, Plymouth University reported survey results disclosing that plastic was found in 33% of fish caught in the UK, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. The impact on human health from the consumption of contaminated fish, or plastics in general, is currently not well understood, however research is being done in this area. A global survey analysed tap water and found that 83% of samples contained plastic particles2, which has prompted the World Health Organization to launch a review into the health impacts of plastic in drinking water.
The severity of the issue, and its global scale, has led to a resolution being signed by all 193 members of the UN at the UN Environment Assembly in December 2017. The resolution committed countries to assessing domestic plastic pollution alongside the exploration of regulatory measures. Some progress is already being made – the EU has launched a plastics strategy and China, which previously imported more than half the world’s recyclable rubbish, has recently banned the import of 32 waste materials, with industrial plastics waste and PET bottles to be included on the exclusion list by the end of 2018. Policies such as these will have an impact on companies making extensive use of plastic packaging.
Plastic pollution is a material risk for many companies and we are encouraging businesses to take steps to better manage their use of plastics. We support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and advocate in this context that relevant companies contribute to the achievement of target 14.13.
There is good work being done, such as the UK Plastics Pact, led by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and enabled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with 60 companies and organisations having signed up to ambitious targets by 2025. Momentum is building and we expect to see more policy action going forward.
What we are asking companies to commit to:
- Reduce the amount of single serve plastic packaging used as well as increase the amount of recycled material within packaging
- Increase the amount of packaging that is recycled or composted
- Stop using single-use packaging items through redesign and innovation
- A strategic approach to implementation
- Transparent disclosure of an accurate plastics footprint and on progress made
We have engaged with 27 companies on the issue, to date, from the food & beverage and food & staples retail sectors, including Nestlé, Danone, Tesco, PepsiCo and Walmart. We will continue this work throughout the year and will also engage with companies within the household and personal care sector.
1 Plastic Oceans (2018) The Facts
2 Orb Media (2017) Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water
3 SDG 14 Life Below Water, Target 14.1: By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine
debris and nutrient pollution