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Plastic problem

Plastic problem

The world creates 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year – but companies still can’t get enough recycled material to stop using it brand new.

There’s more than enough plastic in the world – but recycled material is in short supply. Recycling rates must accelerate fast to slash plastic’s carbon emissions and help companies hit sustainability goals. 

Consumer goods firms with the largest plastic footprints – including Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola – are under pressure from consumers and regulators to swap brand new, so-called “virgin” material for recycled plastic. 

Many have set sustainability targets to cut the amount of new plastic they use. For example, Unilever has pledged to halve the amount of virgin plastic in its packaging by 2025. Proctor & Gamble has made the same promise with a 2030 deadline. 

Governments are also introducing incentives to make firms go further. In the UK, a plastic packaging tax is due to take effect in April on all plastic goods with less than 30 per cent recycled content. In the EU and China, bans on some single-use plastics came into force last year. 

These nudges have contributed to a boom in demand for recycled material. The trouble is, supply is static. As a result, the price of recycled plastic has more than doubled since January 2021. Earlier this month, recycled PET (the kind of plastic commonly used to make bottles) became more expensive than the virgin equivalent, despite surging fossil fuel prices.

That means companies may end up using more virgin plastic than they projected. “There’s simply not enough recycled plastic available to meet the commitments that have been made by not only just P&G, but our peers and industry,” Jack McAneny, vice president of sustainability at Proctor & Gamble, which includes Gillette and Venus razors, Fairy detergent and Always, the feminine hygiene brand, said in December. 

In principle, there needn’t be a shortage of recycled material. Every year, 300 million metric tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide, but just nine per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. In the UK, 43 per cent of plastic is recycled, but 0.54 million metric tonnes are exported to countries including Turkey, where only 12 per cent is recycled.

In practice, recycling isn’t easy. Some plastics, or products made of several plastics bound together, are difficult to recycle. And the process, when possible, is always imperfect – plastics become weaker every time they are broken down and reformed. But recycling all plastics could save 30-50 million tonnes of CO2 every year, equivalent to closing between eight and 40 coal-fired power plants around the world. 

Making new plastic is carbon-intensive: 96 per cent of the total carbon footprint of plastic (4.5 per cent of global GHG emissions) comes from production, most of which now takes place in countries dependent on coal for manufacturing, like China, Indonesia and South Africa, to feed demand in places like the US and EU. The rest comes later in plastic’s lifecycle, including in recycling, incineration and landfill.

The key to cutting emissions from plastic is to increase the amount of recycled plastic available while also reducing production, so companies can hit their targets without creating demand for virgin material. That requires regulators to intervene. Specifically:

End single-use. Half of all plastic produced is designed to be used just once. By 2050, the production of single-use plastics could account for 5 to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions cost of production, as well as the environmental damage of waste (the UK generated 2.89 million tonnes of single-use plastic waste in 2019) make single-use unsustainable. 

Use less. Light and flexible plastic packaging helps reduce food transport costs and food waste, the latter of which accounts for six per cent of global emissions. Getting rid of it altogether isn’t the answer. But clever packaging design could reduce the amount used on every product. 

Supercharge recycling. The pool of recycled material must be made bigger. Twelve per cent of plastic is currently burned, and 76 per cent ends up in landfills, dumps, rivers and seas, where it kills wildlife, produces emissions and reduces the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon. 

Next month, diplomats will gather in Nairobi at the Environment Assembly to decide whether to begin official negotiations on a treaty to reduce plastic pollution. In November, the USA released a National Recycling Strategy. The UK government last updated its plan for England in 2018 – and this month announced recycling targets for households in England had been missed. It sounds like it’s time for an update.


Just words
Twelve weeks after Cop26 in Glasgow, conference president Alok Sharma has asked world leaders whether they will honour their promises or allow its successes to “wither on the vine”. In a speech yesterday at Chatham House, he set out the priorities of the UK’s Cop presidency. They include strengthening national emissions targets, doubling finance dedicated to climate adaptation, setting out a trajectory by Cop27 to deliver $100 billion per year of climate finance promised to developing countries, and pushing to reduce emissions from cars, coal and deforestation. Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development welcomed Sharma’s words but warned that wealthy nations must do more. “We should be clear that the world, and G20 countries in particular, need to make a huge shift in the level of ambition to reduce carbon emissions to stand any chance of keeping alive the goal of only 1.5°C of global warming,” he said.


Open season
Company directors who aren’t committed to tackling climate change are being targeted by investors. The CEO of Aviva Investors, an asset manager responsible for investments worth £262 billion, has said his firm will seek to oust those in the upcoming AGM season who fail to do enough. Aviva’s expectations of climate action include that companies should adopt 2050 net zero emissions targets, commit to the Science Based Targets Initiative framework and publish a transition roadmap that includes short- and medium-term climate targets and milestones. “We will hold boards and individual directors accountable where the pace of change does not reflect the urgency required,” CEO Mark Versey said. The question is – how?


Catch and release
A hydrogen plant with a carbon capture and storage facility (CCS) run by Shell is reported to have emitted more emissions than it removed. The facility in Alberta, Canada, was designed to create “blue hydrogen” – a fuel suggested by Shell as an alternative to natural gas but which scientists say emits even more greenhouse gases than coal. A CSS project attached was meant to store those emissions underground but according to Global Witness, an NGO, the plant captured and stored five million tonnes of greenhouse gases from 2015 to 2019, but released 7.5 million tonnes. Shell’s national CCS lead Tim Wiwchar said the plant was designed as “a demonstration project” to prove that CSS could work.


Question time
Board members at ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell have been invited to testify in front of the US Congress on 8 February about the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to tackle climate change. It’s the next stage of an investigation which saw the companies’ CEOs refuse to answer, in October, whether their companies still spent money to “directly or indirectly to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change”. This time, Congress’ Oversight Committee has invited directors elected to the company boards to improve sustainability – including Alexander “Andy” Karsner, who won one of three seats at ExxonMobil for activist fund Engine Number 1 last year. He’ll be asked whether Exxon’s climate strategies are in line with the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 – which, since the company just published targets that ignore the majority of its emissions – may prove hard to answer.

Thanks for reading.

Ellen Halliday

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