This is the fifth in a six-part series that explores five focus areas for businesses to address in plastic strategies, accelerating change and pursing the necessary scale of innovation and collaboration to address the plastics challenge. You can read the fourth blog in this series here.
No one consumer goods company, packaging or plastics manufacturer will be able to solve the plastics problem alone. Effective collaboration will be imperative if we are acting at the scale and pace necessary to address the challenge.
The need for collaboration is even more pressing in light of the complex and highly fragmented nature of the plastics value chain. In part driven by a lack of coordination and engagement, we see today a proliferation of materials, labelling, collection schemes and reprocessing systems – a diversity that has hampered the development of effective markets. Rethinking and harmonising the functioning of such a complex value chain will require efforts and greater cooperation from all key players.
Impactful Partnerships for Scalable Solutions
No one company has the knowledge or technical expertise to find a scalable solution to plastic pollution. As such, partnerships involving two or more businesses teaming up with each other for mutual benefits – either from the same industry, or from multiple sectors – can fill the vacuum. Procter & Gamble and its Head & Shoulders Beach Plastic Bottle project serves as notable example of such a partnership. The resulting bottle is the first recyclable shampoo bottle in the world to be constructed with recycled beach plastics, containing up to 25% of the recycled material. But without the technical know-how that comes from strategic partnerships, this solution would never have turned into a reality. To make it happen, P&G collaborated with numerous experts and organisations to innovate on sustainable packaging; TerraCycle was instrumental in collecting beach plastics and separating it into high-density polyethylene (HDPE), while SUEZ was able to transform this material into usable inputs for the shampoo bottles.
No one company has the knowledge or technical expertise to find a scalable solution to plastic pollution.
The result was a scalable solution to divert waste from beaches and in recognition, the partners were awarded the United Nations’ ‘Monument for Change’ Climate Solutions Award during COP23 last year. Jean-Marc Boursier from SUEZ said the main lesson from the project was that cooperation between stakeholders is key. “We overcame this challenge because P&G, TerraCycle and SUEZ worked closely together along the plastic value chain, from collection to treatment and transformation, but also right through to marketing.”
To streamline approaches and work together to advance a circular plastics economy, a growing number of multi-stakeholder efforts have highlighted the importance of engagement, not only across supply chains and industries, but with governments and civil society. As David Blanchard, Chief R&D Officer at Unilever noted in correspondence with SustainAbility, it is “actions and partnership like these, driven by the consumer goods industry, that will be amongst the most critical in determining the speed at which positive change takes place.” Many collaborative spaces already exist; companies can participate and provide leadership to create collaborative solutions by working with groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum, The World Economic Forum, and NGOs including The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Ocean Conservancy.
Action and partnerships like these, driven by the consumer goods industry, will be amongst the most critical in determining the speed at which positive change takes place.
In particular, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been instrumental in raising global awareness on the issue of plastic waste. Aiming to create a New Plastics Economy, the foundation has catalysed action from both regulators and industry. On a national scale, the initiative has launched the concept of Plastic Pacts which bring together national and local authorities, businesses involved in designing, producing, using and recycling plastics, as well as NGOs, innovators and citizens. The UK Plastics Pact, led by Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), is the first of these unique collaborations, with a second currently being developed in Chile. On a more global scale, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently announced the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment – a first-of-its-kind collaboration, of which nearly 300 signatories that are collectively responsible for producing 20% of all plastic packaging globally, have pledged to aim to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at source. However, to truly turn the tide on plastic pollution, engaging the other 80% will be critical.
Establishing a Dialogue with Government
As much as initiatives like these are a step in the right direction, government measures will be fundamental to provide the necessary infrastructure and underpin voluntary schemes with the right regulatory environment. While Julian Kirby from Friends of the Earth welcomed the Plastic Pact as a move in the right direction, he stressed that “government measures are also needed to ensure everyone plays their part, and these targets are actually met.” Constructive dialogues between industry and policy makers will be critical, with businesses understanding where government intervention is required and engaging when concerns arise over negative unintended consequences that may result from knee-jerk political reactions.
Policy makers from around the world have rallied, with more than 60 countries having introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastic waste. Since the start of the year, both the UK Government and the European Union have unveiled sweeping strategies that aim to phase out use of certain types of plastic by 2030 – for the EU – and 2042 for the UK. In the UK, under the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ soon-to-be-launched Resource and Waste Strategy, we can also expect reforms to producer responsibility systems to incentivise producers to take greater responsibility for the environmental impact of their products. With so many moving pieces, the industry is faced with a significant opportunity to engage on and influence the structure of these systems so that they are in a strong position to make positive impacts, improving recycling rates in a way that works for consumers, local authorities and businesses.
Working together and with other stakeholders, the private sector has enormous influence and will be in a position to catalyse effective change much faster than governments and civil society. Through collaborating with peers, competitors, adjacent industries and government, businesses have an opportunity to reshape the future of plastic and encourage governments to develop policies and frameworks that will facilitate this fundamental shift.
- Identify clear reasons to partner: Partnerships are a means to achieving a shared vision that no one partner could achieve on its own. Setting a clear case for partnership from the beginning and aligning all parties around shared objectives will be critical to future success.
- Commit to industry-wide voluntary standards: Engage with key players along the plastic value chain to innovate for the sustainable design and manufacturing of plastic packaging, labelling, collection schemes and reprocessing systems.
- Integrate the learnings: Integrate what you learn into business practices, aligning internal functions to support your collaboration goals.
- Lobby policy makers: Work with them to provide relevant tools, data and insights related to plastic and plastic packaging.