Harriet Lamb, CEO, WRAP
In late 2017 the world woke up to the plastic pollution crisis. The nation was gripped by Blue Planet II. Our hearts broke for the mother pilot whale holding her dead calf, the victim of plastics in our oceans. The public reacted with horror and this seismic moment ignited action.
At WRAP we were already in the midst of convening leaders across the public and private sector to tackle the issue, and are proud to have been at the forefront of driving global change alongside many committed organisations.
Five years in...
Fast forward five years from the launch of The UK Plastics Pact in 2018. We have mushroomed from 40 members to nearly 200, and the outlook is markedly different. In the UK we have made great strides towards the Pact’s 2025 targets, and inspired others to act. Working with partners we are now tackling plastic pollution in 22 countries through national initiatives such as the Plastics Pacts, and are actively supporting international negotiations for an ambitious Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution.
Progress but reality bites...
We have arrived at this momentous milestone in part thanks to the world-leading action of UK Plastics Pact members. Through collaboration, innovation and sheer grit, against a backdrop of a global pandemic and international conflict, members have striven to change the system and inspire global action.
In five years, we have reduced originally identified problematic items by 99% and the weight of household plastic packaging has reduced by 8%,2 the same weight as 440 male blue whales.
Recycled content levels have tripled since 2018, and contributed to a 10.5% carbon reduction2. 71% of plastic packaging is recyclable and we’ve pretty much designed-out hard-to-recycle plastics – ready meal aisles are no longer stacked with black plastic trays.
Recycling rates are going in the right direction, now predicted to be 55%, over half of which is now recycled in the UK rather than being shipped overseas. Reasons to cheer.
But we set our targets with an expectation that key policy measures such as consistency (now Simpler Recycling) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) would be in place: key jigsaw pieces in the puzzle of tackling plastic pollution. These haven’t yet been implemented, much to the frustration of all of us, and this means that we will not meet two of our four targets by 2025.
But this isn’t reason to slow down. Far from it...
Simpler Recycling provides the recycling industry with more certainty in making important investment decisions around their operations. Crucially, with a timeline. The whole value chain must pull together to ensure that as collections of more types of plastics (including bags and wrapping) are rolled out, what is placed in the recycling is effectively recycled.
Back in 2018 it was the public that demanded action. Our research shows that half the UK population are reporting that they are seeing some differences on supermarket shelves – but it’s not enough. 70% continue to be as concerned about plastic waste today as they were in 2018, yet they don’t feel as though there’s much they can do about it in their daily shopping. They are looking for government and business to lead the way. We must therefore continue to push the boundaries of what voluntary action can achieve and be ready when the policy instruments finally come online. This means removing pointless plastic, designing for circularity (reuse as well as recycling), and creating demand for recycled plastic.
The challenge of plastic bags and wrapping still looms large. The same boldness that retailers have shown in removing non-recyclable black plastic needs to be shown in removing the plastic from uncut fruit and veg – delivering a triple win by reducing plastic, household food waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
We are working hard with Pact members to scale-up reuse and refill, and blueprints are being developed, from standards and hygiene to incentivising behaviour change and effective policy levers. Exciting stuff.
A future look...
And while we still have a laser focus on 2025, we are also looking ahead to the future, synthesising the implications of global policy and the role of material circularity in delivering on net-zero commitments, with Plastics Pacts across the globe.
We are working with partners around the world to promote a legally binding, high-ambition Global Plastics Treaty that addresses the entire lifecycle of plastics, liaising closely with the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty to realise its true potential and end plastic pollution for good – prioritising reduction, elimination and reuse.
The Plastics Pact model of public / private partnerships can be part of the solution for member states to meet mandated obligations under the Treaty. The UK Plastics Pact shows what can be achieved through concerted collaborative effort and illustrates the key role of regulation.
The challenges ahead are huge, but so are the opportunities – to reduce plastics, realise the potential of a circular economy for plastics, and improve the outcomes for people affected by plastic waste around the world.
Perspective from our partners: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Since launching in 2018 the Plastics Pacts and the Global Commitment have united over 1,000 businesses, governments and other organisations behind a common vision of a circular economy, to stop plastic packaging becoming waste or pollution.
Many of these leading organisations have outperformed their peers – collectively avoiding millions of tonnes of virgin plastics production and related greenhouse gas emissions per year.3 They have proven that through concerted efforts, meaningful progress is possible – as this UK Plastics Pact progress report illustrates.
Yet the world is off track to stop plastic pollution. The organisations outside The Global Commitment and Plastics Pacts are, on average, performing significantly worse than those who have signed up. Even the latter are expected to miss key 2025 targets.
There are three pivotal hurdles currently preventing progress that must be overcome: scaling reuse, addressing flexible plastic packaging, and establishing infrastructure to collect and circulate packaging supported by EPR policies.
It is clear we need more – and more ambitious – binding policy and regulatory measures, alongside accelerated voluntary business action. It cannot be one or the other. Both parts are crucial.
The Global Treaty on Plastics currently being negotiated offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to meet the scale of the challenge and accelerate global change. Together with WRAP, The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, several Plastics Pacts and many others, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is calling for an ambitious UN Treaty – based on legally binding global rules and comprehensive circular economy measures – to ensure that all countries and stakeholders act in concert to end plastic pollution.