Plastic Free July: How are we doing as a global community?
More than a movement
Plastic Free July started from humble beginnings in 2011 as a local initiative of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Western Australia. Fast forward 9 years and Plastic Free July has swelled into a global movement of millions of people across 170 countries, millions of people who are imagining a life without plastic.
Whilst there is momentum building to tackle the plastic crisis, there is a lot of work still to be done to go beyond recycling and make systemic change. The investment being made to improve recycling capacity should be matched by investment to eliminate and reuse plastic. Virgin plastics pose a particular problem as they are directly produced from fossil fuel extraction.
What is the new plastics economy?
The global economy needs to transition away from single use plastics, and the heavily plastic-dominated economy in general. Plastic waste is choking our oceans and if the current rate of plastic pollution continues there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Many of us are worried about the unknown impact of microplastic, the microscopic fibres of man-made plastic found in the water coming out of our taps and within our food.
But a lot of us don’t realise that new (non-recycled) plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and that our urgent need to reduce plastic goes hand-in-hand with our transition to a low-carbon economy.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was launched in 2018 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in conjunction with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been an influential voice for the move towards a circular economy for plastics, and the commitment they champion focuses on reducing the amount of plastic destined for our oceans by addressing the plastic crisis at the source.
The signatories of the Global Commitment are working to:
- Eliminate all unnecessary plastic items
- Innovate so that all the plastics we do need are safely reused, recycled or composted.
- Circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment
It has 6 key focus areas illustrated in the graphic below:
Figure 1 Source the Global Commitment 2019 Progress Report Summary
What progress has been made so far?
The latest Annual Progress Report is out and action on the 6 targets by signatories is mixed. The 400 signatories to the Commitment represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, and had a collective revenue in excess of USD$2 trillion.
Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging
Despite signing the commitment, a reasonable proportion of signatories haven’t eliminated, or even have a plan to eliminate problematic plastic packing – around 30% for each type.
Move from single-use to re-use models
Less than 3% of signatories have reusable plastic packaging, which may speak in part to the lack of viable alternatives. Forty-three signatories have active pilots of reuse models, but this represents just 10% of the group.
100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by design
It’s really encouraging to see that all the signatories have committed to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. And they’re on their way, with about 60% there already. Linking to the previous statistic, it’s mostly recyclable, not reusable.
Reuse, recycling or composting in practice
The recycling process requires investment and cross-collaboration from recycling companies, government and producers.
Decoupling from the consumption of finite resources
The Global Commitment encourages signatories to set explicit targets to reduce virgin plastic use.
Two major organisations have set targets:
- Unilever have committed to reducing virgin plastic in packaging by 50% by 2025.
- Mars Incorporated has also committed to reducing virgin plastic by 25% by 2025.
Most of the major fast-moving consumer goods companies and packaging companies are publicly disclosing their plastic numbers. But those organisations only make up about 20% of the world’s plastic packaging volumes.
Now is a time for accelerated action. Business and government organisations alike can join the Global Commitment and embark on a journey towards a circular economy.
What’s happening in New Zealand?
The Ministry for Environment get a special mention in the 2019 progress report for their work on product stewardship schemes. Find out more about this work on the Ministry’s website.
How can you get involved?
At your place of work, look at what you can do to work with suppliers to reduce your own reliance on plastic whether that be for your products (if you’re a manufacturer) or for your own waste reduction. If you’re interested in how your organisation can innovate for reusing plastic, download the free book online at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Further resources are:
On a personal level, join the Plastic Free July challenge! We’ve got heaps of great articles to get you inspired here.