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Ellen MacArthur Foundation report predicts plastic waste target failures amid slow industry progress

#Ellen MacArthur Foundation report predicts plastic waste target failures amid slow industry progress

31 Oct 2023 — The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) has released a progress report marking the first five years of its “Global Commitment” — a set of objectives and standards designed to promote a circular economy, which has over 1000 signatories. The report shows that despite some notable progress, businesses are on track to fail most of the 2025 targets established by the commitment. 

The report comes weeks ahead of the third International Negotiating Committee (INC-3) for a UN Global Plastics Treaty, which will be held in Nairobi, Kenya, 13-19 November. 

The EMF’s commitment targets include eliminating problematic and unnecessary waste, moving away from single-use and toward reuse formats where possible, decreasing the use of virgin plastics, increasing recyclate content and ensuring all packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable. 

Despite the likely failure of the majority of signatories, which now make up 20% of the global plastics industry, the past five years have seen members “significantly outperform their peers” in reducing plastic waste, according to EMF. 

“They have substantially reduced their use of several problematic and avoidable plastic items, stabilized their use of virgin plastics, and more than doubled their share of recycled content,” says the organization. 

“By increasing their use of recycled plastics by 1.5 million tons per annum, signatories are leaving the equivalent of a barrel of oil in the ground every two seconds — as well as avoiding 2.5 million tons of GHG emissions.” 

However, campaigners like Louise Edge, global corporate campaign lead at Greenpeace UK, says: “The clear lesson from this review is that the current strategies companies are using to tackle the plastics crisis are failing. In the five years since the Global Commitment launched, it’s become more and more obvious how harmful plastic is to our health, to our wildlife, to our communities and to our climate.”

Ocean pollution is set to rise rapidly in the coming decades without serious intervention, according to the report.“And yet, in parallel, signatory companies’ collective plastic use has continued to rise, and its production is set to skyrocket.” 

Successes and failures  
Some companies, like PepsiCo, Mars Incorporated and Coca-Cola, have seen rises in virgin plastic use, of 10%, 14% and 8% respectively. The same corporations have increased post-consumer recyclate levels by 1-6%. 

“Big companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and Coke must now finally admit that recycling is failing to address the dire impacts of their dependence on plastic. And that matching the scale of this crisis means phasing out single-use plastics and transitioning to reuse and refill systems. That has to start with companies ending the sale of the highly-polluting plastic sachets which are flooding the Global South, contaminating local neighborhoods and waterways,” says Edge. 

“The Global Plastics Treaty negotiations provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make these essential shifts happen. Companies must grasp this opportunity, support measures to eliminate single-use plastics and mainstream reuse and back calls for a global target to cut plastic production by at least 75% by 2040.”

However, Jodie Roussell, global public affairs lead for Packaging & Sustainability, Nestlé, tells Packaging Insights that the findings of the report “aren’t a surprise.”

“We’re aware that despite strong performance as a whole, likely the group of signatories won’t make the target of 100% recyclable or reusable. 

To achieve this, three steps are required, she explains: Businesses must design for recycling (81.9% for Nestle currently), systems must be effective and consumers must be aware. 

“Over the past five years, EMF has set the stage for treaty negotiations and EPR,” Roussel asserts. 

Nestlé’s defenses and ambitions 
Roussell also points to a number of successes Nestlé has had in comparison with other major signatories. Since 2018, the company has seen a 10.5% decrease in virgin plastic use. 

EMF signatories are saving huge amounts of fossil fuels through the commitment program, shows the report.The company also cut the weight of its total product packaging by 200,000 tonnes in 2022 and reduced its GHG emissions by 280,000 tonnes. It also claims to have reduced its packaging pieces by 14 billion last year. 

Nestlé’s historic total packaging footprint was down from 4.7 million metric tons in 2018 to 3.6 million metric tons in 2022.

Roussell also claims that Nestlé gets more scrutiny due to its requirement for food-grade plastic. “Of the 460 million tons of plastic produced yearly in OECD countries, less than 20% is food grade. We have higher requirements than many other signatories in EMF,” she says.  

“We receive a lot of attention because of our efforts at transparency and new regulation but also because we recognize that our products require different materials than household or pet food.”

Build up to INC-3 
However, with a large part of industry not yet taking action and business signatories likely to miss key 2025 goals, the EMF predicts 20 trillion flexible packaging items, such as wrappers, pouches and sachets, will end up in the ocean by 2040 unless more ambitious binding policy and regulatory measures combined with greater business action. 

Sander Defruyt, plastics initiative lead at the EMF, says: “The learnings from the Global Commitment over the past five years have shown it’s possible to make meaningful progress toward keeping fossil resources in the ground and plastics out of the ocean.”

“When we took our first steps on this path, there was limited action on this topic. The efforts over the last five years have allowed us to make a major step forward. We now know that progress to tackling plastic waste at a global scale is possible, and where the key hurdles are that are preventing further change.”

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division, welcomes the progress made by EMF signatories in the past five years and says that the failures highlighted in the recent report should inform action at the upcoming INC-3 negotiations. 

“In the past five years, the Global Commitment has demonstrated how plastic pollution can be curbed while shedding light on the ‘pain points’ that need to be addressed to get the system redesign right,” she says.  

“The ongoing negotiation for an international legally binding instrument is a chance to agree the rules, measures, and incentives for an enabling environment to end plastic pollution. Governments, businesses and all relevant stakeholders must unite to ensure we do not miss this historic opportunity.” 

By Louis Gore-Langton

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