Preventing plastic pollution

There is huge global concern around the quantity of plastic waste entering the natural environment, harming wildlife and damaging ecosystems.

The scale of the problem is so enormous that the UN has described it as a “planetary crisis” that is causing irreparable damage.

However, in its report (pdf, 9Mb) about single-use plastics, the head of UN Environment Erik Solheim also mentions the transformational impact that plastic has had on society, citing safe food storage as one important development.

Plastic’s success mainly comes from the fact that it is light and cheap. This has led to the ballooning of global production of plastics, from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to over 380 million tonnes in 2015, according to a study by US academics.

The primary failing – amidst this massive rise in the use of plastic – is that so little has been recycled or reused.

Scientists have calculated that, of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste that the world has created, just 9% has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated, whereas 79% has either gone to landfill or ended up in the natural environment.

This suggests that the main problem is not the plastic itself, but rather how we dispose of it.

Or, to put it another way, we need to work together to develop a circular plastic economy, where plastic is recycled and reused, rather than going to waste as litter or in landfill.

Changing habits

There are several issues that need to be addressed to create this circularity, and the habits of both producers and consumers will need to change.

Firstly, non-recyclable plastic types need to be replaced with fully recyclable materials.

Secondly, there needs to be enough infrastructure to collect, sort and process the recyclable plastic that is disposed of by consumers.

And thirdly, consumers need to understand how to dispose of their packaging correctly, helped by clear information on packaging labels.

As these three things happen, the amount of recycled plastics being used will increase. This, in turn, will add value to – and stimulate a market for – recycled plastics.

Collective action

To make these changes work will require governments, the private sector and civil society to work together. The EU and national governments around the world are currently formulating policy to address single-use plastic.

Globally, a multi-stakeholder process, involving UN agencies, the World Bank, governments, business and civil society is currently underway to develop a Global Plastics Declaration, due for launch in October 2018. In addition, a number of other global initiatives such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance and the New Plastics Economy have been formed to ensure collective action rather than fragmented initiatives.

Nestlé is an active and supportive member of both initiatives.

Nestlé has already committed to using minimum packaging and is aiming to make 100% of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025.

Part of this commitment will be achieved by eliminating non-recyclable plastics such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), polystyrene and expanded polystyrene.

In addition, Nestlé needs to remove complicated combinations of packaging material which hinder recycling – for example paper layered with plastic or laminates.

A vision of the future

In the longer term, there needs to be system-wide innovation where waste is designed out of the packaging process.

The overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste. Nestlé supports that vision and has a long term aim of its own to ensure that none of its product packaging ends up in landfill, in oceans and rivers, or as any form of litter.

One way of doing this is by exploring how to switch to ‘mono-materials’ which are easier to recycle because they don’t have multiple layers of different materials, as well as simpler packaging types such as paper.

Reducing the number of layers of packaging and using lighter colours will also boost recyclability.

Infrastructure

All this action will not make any difference to plastic pollution, of course, unless consumers have the will and ability to recycle the recyclable plastic that is being created.

Consumers must be encouraged, or maybe even incentivised, to dispose of waste correctly and responsibly.

Also, some developing countries will need to implement adequate recycling infrastructure. Nestlé is leading Pioneer Project SEA within the New Plastics Economy, to build an understanding of the waste management systems in priority countries where marine litter is a significant problem – the Philippines and Indonesia, for example.

Addressing the problem of plastic pollution in these countries is essential. For example, a recent report found that 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from just 10 river systems.

It’s a problem that is truly global, with waste from one country frequently washing up on the shores of another.

It’s a problem that cannot be solved without collective action from consumers, the private sector and governments.

Nestlé is committed to playing a leading role in making sure its packaging is recyclable, while helping design an economy that does not waste precious resources.