UN Environment Assembly starts endgame for single-use plastics

Too many leading companies in the plastics industry have been in a state of Denial about the need to move away from single-use plastics. The writing has been on the wall since November 2017 and the screening of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series. The global reaction showed that the issue of plastics pollution had “broken through” to the general public. After that, it was merely a question of time before single-use plastics were banned.

Yet some companies kept trying to push back against the tidal wave of opinion that the programme generated. Of course, they had a genuine case to make about the importance of plastic as a highly versatile material for packaging and other key applications. A move to replace it with cardboard, glass or metal would have been very bad news in terms of CO2 emissions.

But once that issue was resolved, there was really no logic in trying to turn back the tide:

  • Most major consumer products signed up to Ellen MacArthur’s Global Commitments to reduce their use by 2025/2030
  • Most major retailers moved in the same direction
  • Governments and legislators also took note, and began passing laws to enforce a ban

And yet even in recent weeks, some parts of the industry have still been lobbying against the inevitable, as the Financial Times reported last month:

“Major chemical and plastics manufacturers are lobbying to weaken a wide-ranging proposal for a landmark UN global plastics treaty, narrowing it to cover the waste problem rather than production. The American Chemistry Council industry group, that includes ExxonMobil Chemical Company, Shell Chemical and Dow among its 190 members, has pushed back against a proposal for the UN negotiations that was put forward by Peru and Rwanda, people with knowledge of the talks said.”

One would have hoped they had realised that not only was this a waste of time and money, but also risked losing their “licence to operate”. We went through the same issue on CFCs when I worked at ICI:

  • Evidence began to grow from 1985 that these were damaging the ozone layer
  • In 1987 the Montreal Protocol was adopted to control their use
  • It wasn’t an easy decision, as CFCs were a very profitable product for the industry
  • But in 1990, we opened the first HFC replacement plants in the UK and USA and began to shut CFC plants

Hopefully, those members of the industry who have lobbied so hard will now take a step back, and accept the inevitable. After all, almost 200 countries voted last week to negotiate a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly. And it will cover the full lifecycle of plastics from production to disposal.

So the time for discussion is over. The industry has to move on. And crucially, it has to commit its best engineering and scientific teams to solving the technical issues that currently exist with chemical recycling technology.

ICI developed a whole new set of CFC replacement technologies in 18 months. So it really shouldn’t take more than 6 months to solve the very much simpler issues involved with the main recycling technologies.

Plastics recycling is set to become a major new industry, based on the need to use renewable carbon. As the Nova Institute has shown, there is scope to expand production by 15x by 2050. And so if plastics companies don’t get to work now, we can be sure that other new entrants will quickly emerge to replace them.