Commentary

Adopting Net Zero Plastic to Nature

Jeremy Alun-Jones, COO of The Cibus Funds, says it’s time to overcome a ‘tunnel vision’ approach to reducing carbon emissions.

When Coca Cola – the world’s biggest plastic polluter, was announced as one of the sponsors for COP27 this year – the world’s largest climate change conference, it sparked a wave of greenwashing accusations.

On the face of it, the backlash was justified. Coca Cola only uses 25% of recycled content in its plastic bottles in Europe, but in order to satisfy demand for its fizzy drinks from us, the consumers – and simultaneously reduce its reliance on virgin plastic – a cost-effective solution does not exist today. This illustrates that the circular systems simply aren’t in place yet to meet the needs of our modern world and at the same time, solve the plastic waste problem.

One of COP’s key themes this year was ‘net zero’, defined as ‘cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero emissions as possible’. In our view, this carbon emissions ‘tunnel vision’ overlooks so many other crucial ESG challenges, including plastic pollution.

Here in the UK, there has been some progress on plastic waste reduction policies. One of the most famous campaigns was ‘Break the Bag Habit’, which successfully pressured the government to introduce a 5p charge on single-use plastic bags in 2015. This year, the government introduced a £200 tax for every tonne of plastic manufactured or imported packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic.

Lack of progress

These are promising initiatives, but a quick trip to any supermarket confirms the shelves are still lined with products wrapped in plastic. It’s devastating that around 79% of plastic waste worldwide is sent to landfills or the ocean; 12% is incinerated; and only 9% recycled.

One non-profit attempting to stop further environmental destruction is the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). In 2018, WRAP launched the UK Plastics Pact, setting out four targets to enable a circular economy, eliminate plastic pollution, and transform the recycling system in the UK by 2025.  All major UK retailers have signed up.

We find it surprising that these retailers who have pledged to the targets currently impose no obligation on their producers (from the huge global soft drink producers like Coca Cola, to the local soft fruit and veg producers like us, The Summer Berry Company), to commit to a certain percentage of recycled plastic in their packaging. The only requirement is that we pay the new £200 tax per tonne.

Producers, including ourselves, are not unwilling to make the transition away from non-recycled plastic – we want to help retailers reach the UK Plastic Pact targets. But it’s not something that we can do on our own – we need all of the players in the supply chain on board.

The solution is not to eradicate the use of plastics, but for retailers to adopt a term coined ‘Net Zero Plastic to Nature’. This is the notion of demanding the use of 100% recycled plastic (or acceptable alternatives) from the bottom up, creating a circular system.  There needs to be an incentivisation for producers to make the switch to recyclables, in order to drive stronger demand for more plastic to be recycled in our system. This, in turn, would lead investors towards financing recycling plants and infrastructure, plastic waste collection companies, plastic alternatives and other innovative technologies.

We could argue for the elimination of plastic altogether, but one of the main issues is increased food waste – paper and cardboard, for example, simply can’t preserve food in the same way on long journeys. Net Zero Plastic to Nature addresses both challenges. Rather than being an anti-plastic concept, it recognises that plastic can still be used responsibly in a circular economy.

Game-changer

One potentially game-changing policy is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which would incentivise companies to minimise the packaging they create, increase their use of recycled packaging, and penalise them for using non-recyclable packaging. But this project (which has already been pushed back a year) will only begin to be implemented in a ‘phased’ manner from at least the end of 2024 – whilst plastic pollution increases every day.

The time for action is now.

We don’t have to wait for a piece of legislation nor another delay from the government. Retailers have proved their immense success in reducing the volume of single-use carrier bags – use is down a reported 97% since the 5p tax was introduced in 2015. What if we could make that same reduction in non-recycled plastic for products within this decade?

Producers and retailers can voluntarily stop damaging the environment by working together. We’re ready to engage on this, and form an alliance with retailers to achieve an internal reduction of the non-recycled plastic packaging to help retailers reach the UK Plastics Pact targets by 2025. As we start to reflect on COP27, it’s crucial we now overcome this carbon emissions ‘tunnel vision’ and embrace Net Zero Plastic to Nature.

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