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Why we need a global treaty to end plastic pollution

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Authored by Hein Schumacher

As UN member states begin preparing for the fourth round of treaty talks in April, the World Economic Forum annual meeting offers a platform to further the discussion. Read the thoughts of Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher in this blog, first posted on WEF’s website.

30-foot sculpture ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Kibera slums.

About the author

Hein Schumacher

Hein Schumacher

Chief Executive Officer

Hein was appointed Chief Executive Officer in July 2023. As CEO of Unilever, Hein is responsible for leading one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse consumer goods businesses, with presence in 190 countries, serving 3.4 billion people every day.

Urgent steps to end plastic pollution are required. The current plastic life cycle remains primarily linear – take, make, dispose – and the statistics from the OECD are telling: from 2000 to 2019, plastic production and plastic waste have more than doubled, while only 9% of plastic ultimately gets recycled.

OECD data also shows that the amount of plastic waste produced is on track to almost triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth recycled. Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic system could further increase by 63% by 2040, a trajectory that is incompatible with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Packaging represents around one-third of global plastics use. Unilever recognises that it is part of the problem. Too much of our plastic packaging ends up in the environment.

We and others have leant into this challenge through voluntary initiatives such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Commitment. This has not solved the problem – far from it.

Business signatories have significantly outperformed their peers in tackling plastic waste. It shows that a concerted effort can unlock change – but not at the scale needed. With only 20% of the industry signed up, it is clearly an insufficient response to the scale of the challenge.

Voluntary initiatives are not enough – that is clear. More interventions are needed across the entire plastics value chain, both upstream production and downstream waste management. Voluntary initiatives also distort the market, too often reducing the competitiveness of those taking action. We need stronger and harmonised regulations to get everyone on track to eliminate plastic waste and pollution.

A legally binding treaty is a critical opportunity to achieve this – helping us to avoid a patchwork of disconnected national efforts and create a level playing field in the global economy. To support the treaty, Unilever helped create the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty to give confidence to member state negotiators that businesses and financial institutions recognise the importance of regulation to end plastic pollution.

Voluntary corporate action alone is not enough; we are asking for stronger rules and harmonised regulations across the full plastic life cycle.

Hein Schumacher, CEO, Unilever

The Business Coalition is calling for a treaty that focuses on the reduction, circulation and prevention of plastic waste. A comprehensive treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics and not just downstream recycling or waste management alone.

Businesses respond to regulatory certainty. A coherent legal framework will clarify what actions we need to take for companies like ours, where we need to focus on the short term and invest in the long term. And we will do so knowing that everyone is playing by the same rules.

We welcome businesses and organisations who share this vision to join the Business Coalition and unite behind our vision for the treaty. A shared voice is a strong voice.

Accelerating plastics policy

The last round of plastic treaty negotiations ended in disappointment. Despite the best efforts of most member states calling for an ambitious and effective treaty, there was a proliferation of alternative text proposals that sought to narrow the scope of the treaty to downstream waste management measures only. But it’s a simple statement of fact that we won’t solve the plastic pollution challenge without addressing the entire life cycle of plastics.

Also disappointingly, there was no agreement on any intersessional work taking place – risking delays in the negotiation process, delays that we cannot afford. Member states should conduct further (informal) consultations before the next round of negotiations at the UN Environment Programme’s fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) meeting in April 2024.

The members of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty are keen to help in any way we can. We have plenty of experience of what works – and what doesn’t – through our voluntary initiatives and experiences with various national laws and regulations. These include critical policy areas such as global product design rules, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and reusable and refillable packaging systems.

The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum offers a platform for these discussions. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to solve this problem – so let’s take that chance.

This blog was first published on the World Economic Forum website, 11 January 2024.

Voluntary initiatives to end plastic pollution aren’t enough. A global treaty is now needed

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Photo is of a 30-foot sculpture titled ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Nairobi’s Kibera slum.

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