Why global businesses are signing a treaty to end plastic pollution

Last week, discount supermarket chain Aldi Australia announced it had joined a league of more than 85 international organisations supporting the ‘Global Plastics Treaty to End Plastic Pollution’. The treaty, as the name suggests, calls for an ambitious and effective agreement to create a circular economy across the international supply chain, wherein plastic never becomes waste or pollution. It is backed by the United Nations, as well as global businesses such as Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo, the C

e Coca-Cola Company and Unilever.

According to a 2022 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, global plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, and plastic waste generation more than doubled between 2000 and 2019 to 353 million tonnes.

Forty per cent of all plastic waste comes from packaging, while 12 per cent comes from consumer goods and 11 per cent comes from clothing and textiles. 

Aldi Australia’s director of corporate responsibility Daniel Baker said the business is planning to introduce more sustainable packaging in its supply chain in an effort to reduce its non-biodegradable waste.

“The plastics crisis doesn’t stop at our shelves, or even our oceans,” Baker said.

“This is a global challenge that needs a cohesive response, and having a United Nations treaty with businesses around the world is essential to help solve this global crisis together.”

The move mimics efforts by Coles and Woolworths in recent years, which have both committed to remove plastics from their fresh produce sections, as well as rethink the way their meat and protein products are packaged.

Woolworths is currently trialling an in-store vertical garden concept in its Erskineville store in partnership with Invertigro, where customers can purchase freshly grown produce directly from within the store – cutting down on plastic and pollution emitted in the delivery of product to the store.

Why is a treaty necessary?

According to the OECD report, while bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries, these tend to focus on items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of the overall problem.

“[They] are more effective at reducing littering than curbing plastics consumption,” the report stated.

Instead, the report calls for greater use of ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ schemes for packaging and durables, in which businesses are responsible for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products, as well as landfill taxes, deposit-refund and pay-as-you-throw systems.

And while voluntary corporate action is encouraged, it isn’t likely to reach the scale needed to solve the crisis, said Rob Opsomer, executive lead of systemic initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which also signed on to the UN treaty.

“An ambitious global plastics treaty is required – one that accelerates the transition to a circular economy and ensures the value of products and materials is not lost but retained. Plastic can no longer be allowed to become waste or pollution,” Opsomer said.

Can ‘zero plastic’ exist?

Many parts of the retail economy are beginning to move on the issue of reducing plastics, from products launching with no plastic involved in packaging at all, such as Good Time, to more established players finding ways to reduce their reliance on the material.

Whether the industry can ever get to a point where it is using no plastic at all, however, is another matter.

“I think at the end of the day most retailers are taking really proactive steps to reduce the amount of plastic used in a retail setting,” Queensland University of Technology Professor Gary Mortimer told Inside Retail.

“But, I also think retailers and consumers both acknowledge that we’ll never get to a point where we will have no plastics at all. It’s used for so many reasons across the industry, from hanging clothes to connecting price tags to products.”

Previous attempts to remove plastic from packaged food haven’t always gone well, either. Iceland, a popular discount supermarket in the United Kingdom, has run into multiple challenges since it switched from  selling bananas in plastic packaging to bunching them up with paper bands. The move initially caused the produce to rot faster, and while Iceland solved that problem, sales are still down significantly. 

Another issue Mortimer noted is that while plastic is harmful, it is also cheap to produce and long-lasting: both a blessing and a curse.

“Cutting out plastics is certainly going to come with a cost,” said Mortimer, “and then the question becomes how much more are consumers willing to pay?”

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