Mostly crowded out of recent news cycles dominated by more turbulent news, 175 nations from around the world have passed a landmark resolution that the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) expects will do for plastic pollution what the Paris Agreement is doing to organize global efforts to address climate change.

By 2024, the UNEA will create a legally binding international treaty that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics, promote reusable and recyclable products and materials to replace current plastic usage, and enhance international collaboration and access to technologies that will level the playing field and created a united front in the campaign to eliminate what some are now referring to as an epidemic in need of a cure.

In this week’s blog post we are going to talk about this development and what it means for the businesses and organizations involved in Executive Platforms’ Sustainability, Manufacturing, Supply Chain, and other related event series.

How Big is the Problem?

When The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first began tracking plastic pollution in 1950, it estimated the world produced around two million tons per year. By 2017 that number had grown to 348 million tons annually —that’s the equivalent of 67 Great Pyramids of Giza— and without action that number is expected to double by 2040. UNEP also estimates 11 million tons of plastic waste —more than two Great Pyramids—flow into the oceans each year, and that number is expected to triple by 2040 as old plastic breaks down into microplastics that is almost effortlessly carried by the processes of erosion towards large bodies of water.

The global plastics industry is valued at $522.6 billion, and while much has been done and is being done to change how polymer materials are created, stored, used, recycled, and disposed of, the status quo has not addressed an accelerating set of metrics going in the wrong direction. To add further to the negative forecast, as things stand by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics will account for 15% of total global emissions permitted by the Paris Agreement.

The 193 countries that have ratified the Paris Climate Accords cannot hope to meet their emission targets without also addressing GHG production associated with plastics, and so even putting solid waste to one side, the stage has been set for radical disruption in business models that have been tried, tested, and true since the 1940s.

By 2024, most of the world is going to see a fundamental change in how it uses plastics.

So What Does This Mean for Fortune 1000 Companies?

In just about every industry Executive Platforms works with, staying ahead of the curve and being proactive is always worth the extra effort. No one should be looking at the 2024 date and thinking, “Well, we’ll just hold on and see exactly what we’re going to be asked to do.”

The companies that wait will find themselves both caught flat-footed and playing catch-up to their competitors who got out in front of what is coming and can take compliance-driven course corrections in their stride.

It is true this resolution only generates collective voluntary action for the next two years, and there will probably be a few years afterward 2024 as different countries ratify and new rules come online, but it has set the wheels in motion towards a legally binding international treaty that will involve at least 175 countries each putting new regulations and requirements in place that are more stringent than today’s rules. Who wants to respond to each of those changes one at a time starting from square one on the day each new law come into effect?

You do not often get a couple of years’ notice that a tsunami is coming. There is a real opportunity for companies to do the right thing right now both because it is the right thing to do and also because it makes good business sense, rather than wait to be required to do it.

Why Should Businesses Seriously Start Rethinking How They Use Plastic?

  1. Being on the right side of this issue is never going to be viewed as a mistake. That’s worth saying at least once.
  2. Corporate Social Responsibility has become one of the most important factors for how the public perceives a business as a brand, and so stakeholders are going to think better of companies that are already taking action on this issue before they are forced to do so. It falls to few companies to be one of the flag-bearers of what the world is going to look like for the next century, but we are approaching a dramatic rethink of plastic usage that will impact everyone on a daily basis. Being a champion in the next few years will establish a positive place in the zeitgeist for generations to come.
  3. Industries that treat compliance as the starting point and not the finish line have more freedom to self-regulate and govern themselves. A little initiative now will pay off enormous dividends in the future as businesses have more control over the how and when and where of their actions over the long-term.
  4. Where there is change, there is opportunity. If everyone is going to be forced to alter how they use plastics in a few years anyway, there will be opportunities to build competitive advantage by finding successful alternatives first.
  5. If the 2024 treaty is using the Paris Agreement as its benchmark, it follows it will also use it as its template. The new regulatory regime emerging from the Paris Agreement has created a number of financial motivators —both incentives and penalties— to curb emissions and work towards addressing root causes of the problem. Industry partners who are seen as first-movers in the fight against plastic pollution will have a greater voice in how those incentives and penalties work, and their input will of course help partner organizations follow their example while punishing competitors who drag their metaphorical feet on this issue.
  6. How complicated will it be for senior leaders to meet the requirements and timelines of 175 similar but different national initiatives? How much easier would it be to rethink the design, production, and disposal of plastic products to meet and exceed even the most stringent requirements now and roll that out as a global standard rather than spend decades building incremental iterations that can only operate in the markets that are lagging behind in the rollout and enforcement of whatever the new Plastic Pollution Accord will be called?

So What is Actually Going to Change?

To begin with, the full lifecycle of plastic from production to design to disposal is about to face serious review with a mandate for fundamental rethink. Will we still be making plastic out of fossil fuels in the future, or will we be required to switch to renewable sources of polymers? Will the facilities that process raw materials into plastic be allowed to vent themselves to the sky, or will requirements of carbon capture and storage be made mandatory? What does the answer to those first two questions do to the cost of production? We build plastics into most products and packaging because it is inexpensive and durable. What happens when it becomes more expensive to produce, and when businesses are penalized for building a product or package that will exist for decades or centuries but only be used by the end user once? After the plastic has served its purpose, what additional steps are going to be made mandatory to keep that plastic out of landfills and oceans?

At the very least we should expect single-use plastic to no longer be a profitable business venture a decade from now. That is the easiest target —the lowest hanging fruit— for whatever the UNEA produces in terms of an international treaty. The existing trend in packaging towards recyclable and biodegradable options will only accelerate, and at some point a combination of economies of scale, new inventions and incentives, and finally laws and penalties will create a tipping point where inexpensive single-use plastic will cost more than the alternatives.

There is also serious need to reform how the world recycles plastics. Even in jurisdictions that have embraced dividing plastics out of other waste, much of that plastic still goes to landfills for lack of recycling capacity or an inability to sort mixed plastics into the different types that can only be reused after different methods of recuperation. Efforts to date have been held up by a lack of capital investment and limitations of current technology, both of which should be addressed in the coming years. There are opportunities right now for companies’ current and future plastic usage to better align with what the next generation of recycling efforts will require and demand.

While there is much more to say on this topic, there will also be many more blogs in which to carry on this conversation. For now, let’s summarize with some declarative statements:

  1. Change is coming to how we use and discard plastic. The status quo is going to end. It is no longer a question of if, but when.
  2. With that change comes both the opportunity to get ahead in the future business reality, and the threat of being left behind playing by old rules.
  3. While the nature of the new regulatory environment is still being debated, specifics are not important for businesses whose goal is to meet and exceed compliance standards, and they should be rewarded by both competitive advantage and positive brand associations for the efforts they take now.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.