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The challenge is difficult but not impossible. 250 organisations have pledged to team up to tackle plastic waste. The project "Alliance to end plastic waste" organised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation should increase recycling initiatives and put an end to the flow of plastic into oceans. The Alliance, bringing together thirty multinational corporations, is now seeking long-term solutions to reset the parameters in the plastic industry. Already, USD 1 billion has been earmarked to fight against plastic pollution through this programme. The Alliance has also pledged to invest USD 1.5 in the coming five years to help end plastic waste.

The Alliance consists of companies that produce, use, process and recycle plastic. By uniting the whole plastic value chain, the Alliance expects to benefit from the technical and engineering expertise of each sector to have deep insights and to come up with efficient long-term solutions. It has laid the foundation for a four-pronged strategy among which one is to fund The Incubator Network by Circulate Capital to promote technologies and sustainable business models.

Creating a circular economy for plastic

This new commitment should set in place a genuine circular economy for plastic. Four years ago the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a study on plastic pollution, aiming at measuring how much plastic is recycled globally, how much is transformed into lower quality material, how much ends in landfills, and how much is incinerated. The findings were alarming: 32% of plastic produced just evaporated into thin air, no doubt escaping into nature and polluting rivers and oceans.

As a matter of fact, the amount of plastic is not decreasing at all. On the contrary, every minute a truckload of plastic infiltrates oceans globally. The United Nations estimates that approximately 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans each year. Most of this waste consists of single-use plastics such as bottles and supermarket bags. According to the UN, only 9% of the nine billion tonnes of plastic that the world has produced has been recycled.

Also taking into account that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish, the foundation initiated serious discussions with industry leaders. They all decided to take a step back and look at the bigger picture; instead of focussing on specific innovations, they decided to vision how things would be in 10 or 20 years for the industry itself. As a result, not one but multiple steps were defined to reach the target. For instance, the 250 companies have committed to eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastic, and to shift to reusable packaging in certain cases. They are also aiming to make all plastic reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2050. Public reports will be released on a yearly basis to track progress in a transparent manner.

All players will have to stop working in silos

Nonetheless, this project will not stand good if governments do not put policies in place to ensure that what is recyclable actually gets recycled and to set up the necessary infrastructure to support it. Companies that are into the manufacturing of packages should be encouraged to use recycled and renewable material, as well as use renewable energy for the production. Recycling and collection companies are equally part of the programme. All players have to work in a cohesive manner.

The commitment also includes governments, which need to put policies in place to make sure that plastic that is “recyclable” actually gets recycled, and to build the infrastructure that’s needed. Companies that manufacture packaging will need to shift away from virgin plastic to recycled and renewable material, and use renewable energy to produce it. Collection and recycling companies are also part of the coalition. Currently, there is confusion amongst consumers who still seem to have difficulty in differentiating what can be recycled and what cannot be recycled. The solution would be to make absolutely all packaging recyclable. Simultaneously, with this approach, every plastic will have value, clarifying the issue for consumers and simplifying the whole recycling system.

Cities have to collaborate to push up recycling rates. In Indonesia, for example, companies are paying local collectors to clean up beaches and the plastic collected is being recycled into new packaging. The Alliance aims at involving cities to help them reduce the amount of plastics leaked into the environment. It is specifically targeting those cities that are without any infrastructure for the fight against plastic in terms of waste management.

Time to ban samples and individual sauce packets

After the intensive programme to ban plastic straws, the time has no doubt come to ban samples and individual sauce packets that generally contain more plastic than product. They should be the next target on the list, requiring the same massive mobilisation as plastic straws that have successfully been suppressed in many shops, restaurants and bars. They will equally be banned for sale in the European Union (EU).

Samples are a juicy market. Heinz distributed 11 billion ketchup packets in 2010 worldwide. In France, 15 million various samples were distributed in 2015. These small plastic packets are particularly difficult to recycle as they are composed of two fused materials- plastic and aluminium foil. In the end, tonnes of these materials are burnt for the consumption of few grams of sauce, cream or perfume. Brands are finding it difficult to do away with them as these samples are good selling points for consumers. Durable alternatives to distribute samples should be designed. Heinz, for instance, has committed itself to ensure that its packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. In restaurants, individual sauce packets can be replaced by self-service glass or plastic containers.