Need To Change The Production, Use, And Disposal Of Plastic 

By Prarthana Borah June 05, 2023

World Environment Day 2023: Plastics impact disclosure by corporations is a critical step towards removing plastics from the environment and improving the health of seas and freshwater ecosystems

Need To Change The Production, Use, And Disposal Of Plastic 
Humanity produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain.

This year the theme for World Environment Day is “Beat Plastic Pollution '' an opportune time to remind businesses that actions on plastic pollution matter and the business community needs to accelerate action to reduce plastic pollution. At a time when the United Nations Environment Programme website states the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the Earth’s Oceans every minute, it is essential to reflect on how corporates can contribute to beat plastic pollution in line with the theme for World Environment Day 2023

 Historically speaking, scientists in the late 1960s/early 1970s first noticed plastic pollution while conducting plankton studies. Today, plastic waste is everywhere. According to the United Nations, out of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced between 1950-2017 almost seven billion ended up in landfills or oceans as waste.

Packaging is where it all began

 “Parkesine” and “Celluloid, the first versions of plastic, were introduced to the world as early as 1862 and 1872, respectively, but did not gain popularity due to various issues. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century, “Bakelite” , the first synthetic plastic, found use in multiple products. But the extensive use of plastic started when, in 1933, ‘Polyethylene’ was discovered. This was when plastic became a packaging material, leading to the introduction of the plastic grocery bag in 1977. It is therefore important to speak about the connection between the plastic boom and the overuse of packaging.

A booming consumer product market

How did plastic become so popular? An interesting observation comes from the case study of Tupperware. Earl Tupper figured out a way to convert an industrial by-product into improved plastic, which led to the creation of a line of polyethylene plastic storage containers after World War II. The business model for marketing came with the Tupperware Home Parties of the 1950s and 1960s, when women became salespeople and sold coloured designer containers to America. Today, Tupperware is sold in almost one hundred countries, with half of its revenue coming from overseas sales and Indonesia being its largest market.

From war supplies to healthcare, textiles to automobiles, plastic found a place everywhere. Be it nylon, lycra, or disposable gloves for the body of a car, plastic has become indispensable.  In the 1970s, fibre optics transformed the telecommunications industry and became crucial to the digital transformation. Finance became plastic with the introduction of the first bank card made of plastic, named “Charg-It,” in 1946.

Addressing the Issue: The need for a Global Mandate

Recent research states that the global carbon footprint of plastic amounts to 4.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This number could reach 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030 if we continue to produce and use plastic that way. There are numerous reasons to take immediate action to drive policy and manufacturing to minimise plastic. This can only be accelerated with a global understanding of the problem and shared responsibilities. It is therefore noteworthy that Heads of State,Ministers, and other representatives from UN Member States, in March 2022, endorsed a historic resolution to address the full life cycle of plastic, including production, design, and disposal.

An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has been set up through the UNEA resolution to develop specific content for a plastic pollution treaty by 2024. Countries can then ratify the treaty, and if negotiations go right, it will become a globally governing instrument on the issue of plastic pollution.

Dealing with Overproduction

An important aspect that followed the global resolution was the setting up of the HAC (high ambition coalition) of twenty-five countries. The HAC, comprising Rwanda, Norway, the Republic of Korea, the UK, Switzerland, Portugal, Costa Rica, Iceland, Ecuador, Canada, Peru, Germany, Senegal, Georgia, France, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Ghana, Monaco, Slovenia, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the UAE, has quoted seven key requirements for a successful treaty. It is essential to highlight that these requirements talk about transparency in the value chain and setting baselines and targets for sustainability in the life cycle of plastics. Additionally, the HAC cites the need to set global sustainability criteria and standards for plastic production and the need to create a mechanism for monitoring and reporting at each stage of the plastic lifecycle. The partnership also emphasises the importance of providing technical support and scientific assessment, as well as enhancing commitment. Hence, engaging with the corporate sector becomes critical for achieving success with the treaty.

Disclosing to Beat Plastic Pollution

In meeting these requirements, disclosure can play a significant role.  Corporate disclosure of plastics impacts is a major step to remove plastics from the environment and improve the health of oceans and the freshwater ecosystem. Disclosure of plastics can help identify its use in operations and value chains as well as assist in identifying ways and means to transition away. A robust understanding of how companies contribute to the plastic pollution crisis and how the same companies can formulate equitable and just transition plans to address this, is possible through a process that is science based and ensures transparency in reporting.

CDP, an international non-profit that manages a global disclosure system for investors, corporations, cities, states, and regions to manage their environmental impacts, will extend its platform to 7,000 enterprises for the first time in 2023 to disclose their plastic-related consequences. This data will be available to investors and policymakers in a relevant, comprehensive, and comparable format to facilitate better decision making. Plastic disclosure can generate data to improve production and value chain engagement, reducing plastic use and overuse. In December 2022, 55 financial institutions, including CDP signatories Triodos Investment Management, Cardano ACTIAM, Boston Common Asset Management, and Robeco, formed a 'plastic solutions investor alliance' to engage companies in addressing plastic pollution.

Disclosures can help eliminate problematic plastics. Disclosing opens the plastics and petrochemical industries to scrutiny, driving the industry to become transparent about their production, distribution, and waste management practices. Disclosures can prevent corporations, governments, and people from thinking of plastic waste as a consumer driven, post consumption problem and challenge the lifecycle impact from production to destruction.

Anti-plastic crusaders have been fighting the no plastic cause for a while now. Yet the oceans are expected to be home to 75-199 million tonnes of plastic trash. There is a need to change the production, use, and disposal of plastic. If we do not act, the amount of plastic waste in aquatic ecosystems all over the world could almost triple, to 23-37 million tonnes a year by 2040, from 9-14 million tonnes a year in 2016.

It is time for the industry to beat plastic pollution and act based on scientific data reporting.

(The author is India Director, CDP)