Global action to turn the tide on plastic waste and pollution took an important step forward earlier this week when the United Nations approved a plan to create the world’s first-ever global plastic pollution treaty. Public attention on the issue of plastic pollution has fallen off a cliff since it’s high watermark in 2018, when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, projected the scale of plastic pollution into the living rooms in the UK and around the world. 

The waves this treaty creates could be large, so here are our five key takeaways for your organisation:  

This could be the Paris for action on plastic. 

COP21 at which the Paris Agreement on climate change was secured, marked a key moment in efforts to tackle climate change, which committed countries to a clear framework to progress policy to limit global warming to well-below 2°C and 1.5°C. From this, we have seen national policy action at a global scale – from individual countries submitting their climate plans, as part of the National Determined Contributions, through to increased corporate action and much more. A similar process is exactly what ministers at the UNEA took the first step of signing up to in terms of action on plastic waste and pollution. You may be asking what is new about policy on plastic. You may be thinking that in the UK, for example, there have already been Governmental policies around reducing plastic waste and pollution such as the charges on plastic bags and the upcoming plastic tax. A global treaty would mean more and more countries could legislate around plastic waste and pollution basically changing the global policy framework.

This is more than just recycling. 

The mandate agreed by the UN includes measures looking at the entire lifecycle of plastics, from production through to product design, to waste management. Simply put, expectations on action on plastic waste and pollution is going to become a lot broader. The treaty could unlock a whole new range of policy outcomes, innovations and commercial opportunities. From systems that design out waste before it is created through to waste management solutions. This also means that businesses may need to re-look at their sustainability targets and think more broadly about what they can be doing beyond waste management.  

Voluntary action is more relevant than ever.  

Voluntary action has had some successes in reducing plastic waste and pollution, but it has not been enough on its own. The Global Commitment, led by Ellen MacArthur Foundation which published their third progress report last year found that for the 500 signatories, virgin plastic use had peaked and is now set to fall faster by 2025.  Relatedly, voluntary advocacy has galvanised change and it was 80 companies, including big businesses like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestle, earlier this year signed an open letter recommending a plastic treaty “set a high common standard of action…  to drive the transition to a circular economy”. The bottom line is that a global treaty is needed because voluntary action is not enough to deliver the scale and pace of change needed, but there will continue to be commercial and reputational benefits for companies and brands that show leadership and raise the bar via voluntary systems that will be important proving grounds for regulators to follow. 

Shift economic framework. 

The tightening global policy framework could also unlock a big shift in finance in two ways. As we have seen over the last decade, with action around climate risk, businesses are becoming increasingly more aware of accounting and disclosing climate risk and impact. We could see something similar with plastic waste and pollution where there could be an increasing investor concern towards exposure towards the plastics crisis and plastic risk. The treaty could also unlock the economic opportunity and innovation around the circular economy. We have seen over the last decade the massive success story of renewable energy through the cost of offshore wind. The same could be true for plastic, where solutions are still in their relative infancy.   

This could increase focus on the circular economy  

The headwinds of a UN treaty on plastic could be enough to drive the circular economy further up the agenda. The scope of the potential treaty looks at eliminating waste and pollution; circulating products and materials and regenerating nature. Given the wider links between circularity as a key part of the solution to a number of other environmental issues ranging from loss of nature through to climate change, the next couple of years could see circular action having a bigger impact. Simply put, this is another reason for companies to think about how they can embrace circularity into their business models.  

The global plastic treaty has not been signed but as an environmentalist, it is hard not to be excited by its potential impact. According to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, the resolution was “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the [2015] Paris accord”. This is the start of a process. The UNEA establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. 

For businesses, this is a great moment to consider your position and exposure to the risks associated with plastic waste and pollution and if relevant take action. Now is also an important moment to calculate the plastic footprint of your business and to do so in a way that recognises responsibility through the supply chain, in much the same way that companies have sought to assess and plan to address GHG emissions.

There are also organisations that are creating leading voluntary responses. From the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to World Economic Forum Global Action Partnership there are a number of movements leading to real change for businesses to be involved. Now is the opportunity to show leadership, get ahead of the change and become a changemaker.