Plastic is valuable material and doesn't belong in the ocean

Plastic is valuable material and doesn't belong in the ocean

Worldwide, plastic is most often used for packaging.  In the last fifty years we have gone from reusable solutions to single-use disposable items. Today, a mere 2% of these items are recycled into new packages. However, there are encouraging signs that both government and industry are busy radically changing the current plastic system, which revolves around the buy-create-dispose principle, to a circular system. Even only in the last couple of weeks, the European Commission has announced her plastics strategy, France has taken on the ambitious challenge to 100% recycle all plastics by 2025 and the UK has announced an environment plan for the next 25 years, focussed on deminishing the plastic disposal culture.

Plastic bags

Do we want to keep using plastic bags that end up in the trash, after only being used for a couple of minutes? The industry is also starting to take action. At the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, Unilever has commited itself to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.  During the meeting this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that another 10 prominent brands, retailers and packaging companies have made a similar commitment.

However, to adapt the current plastic system to the 21st century, the prominent players have to do even more. Especially companies can do four things to speed up the transition to a circular plastic economy, where plastic stays within the economy as a valuable material and doesn't disappear in the ocean.

Firstly, it is our joint responsibility to question aspects of the system that we have come to regard as inevitable. For example, do we want to continue using disposable plastic bags that are burnt or end up on the garbage disposal after only being used for mere minutes? By investing in innovative ways to get products to the consumers, we can help solve this challenge.  In doing so, we generate a potential of $10 billion worldwide.

In addition, more companies have to follow the example of the 11 companies in Davos: by taking into account what happens with the packaging after use when designing it.


Companies have to define a joint protocol: a 'Global Plastics Protocol'. Thirdly, the current system of guidelines and definitions is not clear and strict enough: terms as 'bioplastic' or 'recyclable' can cause confusion and provide options for greenwashing. Therefore, companies have to define a joint 'Global Plastics Protocol'. Such a protocol can help the industry to coordinate material choices, so that ultimately only materials come together that are recyclable or reusable, or that can be biodegraged in a safe way.

Finally, a constructive dialogue between the industry and the government is a condition to make good progress.  Policymakers are essential players who can offer the right infrastructure and lay down lawful rules for a circular economy.

CEO's have to work together with governments in a positive way to develop policies that are necessary to bring about a transition of the system, such as the introducion of effective and comprehensive regulations with regard to producer responsibility.

Given the size of the problem, it is time that we shake up our production and consumption models with joint forces, to see which economic and environmental benefits we are currently overlooking. 

Ellen MacArthur is founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Paul Polman is the CEO of Unilever.


Source: Financieel Dagblad, 19-02-2018



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