Ahead of COP26: If we talk climate we need to talk plastic

Next week marks the start of the long-awaited COP26, where leaders from all around the world will gather for what many see as our last chance at correcting our climate trajectory. The conference will address four topics: securing global net zero and keeping the 1.5 degrees within reach, protecting communities and natural habitats, mobilizing finance and last but not least, working together. However, as important as these topics are, the word plastic is almost nowhere to be found.

As Greenpeace made clear in a recent report, Plastic plays a big role in climate change: from the extraction and transportation of fossil energy, to its refining and manufacturing. With the production of plastic forecast to grow by 60% by 2030 and to treble by 2050, the issue is only set to get much much worse.

Though plastic pollution is now widely recognised as a real problem, plastic and climate seem to remain as two separate topics in the eyes of consumers, business and policymakers. If we are serious about tackling climate change, it’s time to end our view of plastic as solely a physical threat to our environments and admit its key role in driving the climate crisis. If we can acknowledge this basic fact, we’ll see why current efforts to eliminate plastic are inadequate considering the scope of the issues, and why solutions based on reuse and reduction are not just the way out of the plastics crisis, but the climate crisis too.

Why recycling alone is not enough

Recycling has been mainstream for decades now, and has led many to believe that it can solve plastic pollution once and for all. However, as much as it can tackle immediate waste problems, it is not sufficient in the long-term. In order to reduce plastic waste, we need to start at the core of the problem, which is plastic production. Recycling should be seen as a way to control existing damage and not a solution in itself.

Recycling technology faces many obstacles. For instance, due to financial and infrastructural limitations, Malaysia recycles only 11.4% of its plastic, with the majority of the rest having found its way into the ocean and landfills. This isn’t because Malaysia alone has got it wrong, the situation is the same or even worse all around the world. Other issues that recycling faces include the fact that not only are some types of plastic not recyclable, and that those which are experience low rates of recycling due to being part of mixed compositions, making it impossible to separate the recyclable plastic from other product components.

Additionally, recycling may serve to distract us from demanding real solutions from the world’s largest companies. Recycling alone will not be able to significantly reduce plastic but it might just convince people that companies are doing enough by just recycling, and diffuse the demand for scalable solutions based around reduce and reuse.    

Moreover, climate considerations of plastic production technologies such as recycling, upcycling, waste-to-energy and clean-ups cannot eliminate emissions that result from plastic production, as they do not reduce the amount of plastic we use. We need to prioritize reuse which by reducing consumption could reduce the extraction and use of fossil fuels and lower resultant greenhouse emissions. To this day, a quarter of the world still doesn’t acknowledge that waste management, which has a great potential to impact surface temperature, is linked to greenhouse emissions.

Plastic production isn’t set to slow down, we’re still decades away from hitting peak plastic. Even a best case recycling scenario can’t keep a lid on our plastic problem.

Why we need to prioritize reuse solutions

Our best chance at beating plastic pollution is to avoid plastic from the word go. As utopian as it might sound, reuse is the best and most practical route towards achieving this. Reuse models are focused on long-lasting products that can be used through several life cycles without generating waste or requiring any processing after it’s been manufactured. Reuse has been a part of society for many years now, from reusable grocery bags, to reusable packaging for laundry detergent and shampoo, but we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to implementing it at scale. If we were to use refill models to all plastic packaging within personal care and home cleaning products, we would witness a 80-85% reduction in GHG emissions!  

To make it simple, reuse is the only model that can keep up with the plastic production problem we are facing!

How The Zero Waste Lab is promoting a reuse revolution

Whilst it has a key role to play, recycling is a mopping technology and can only take us so far. What we need is reuse models that turn off the tap itself and address the source of the problem. Here at the Zero Waste Living Lab we do just that, concentrating on building reduce and reuse business models that reduce plastic pollution and effectively answer the climate challenge posed by plastic production. Concretely, we build new ventures and pilots in Indonesia and Malaysia that will directly tackle specific environmental issues such as Koinpack (reusable alternative to single-use sachets) and Econesia (filters water to tackle plastic bottle consumption). Want to know more about why we believe Reuse is the solution to our plastic problem, check out our previous writing on the subject.

Our venture Koinpack provides daily necessities in returnable and reusable packaging. This solution replaces the ubiquitous single-use sachet, a particularly difficult to recycle form of plastic packaging that frequently escapes waste management processes.

Reduce, reuse, and then recycle (in that order!)

It’s clear that in order to reduce plastic waste, we need to replace linear take-make-waste extractive industrial models with circular ones. First and foremost, the plastic crisis isn’t just polluting our environments and ecosystems, it’s driving climate change. Therefore, we need to lower our consumption of non-renewable energy and single-use goods. Indeed, recycling is an important cleanup technology, but it won’t solve this crisis. Reuse and refill can. We need to bring these models to the mainstream just as has been done for recycling. It must only become easier and cheaper to choose reuse over single-use. 

What these Reuse technologies have in common is that they require funding to be up to scale, but it is worth it! For instance, leaders gathering at the COP26 could redesign externalities, policies and levies in a way that would incentivize businesses to reduce plastic packaging and shift towards product delivery and services where valuable materials stay longer in the loop. By doing so, we would both lessen the pollution caused by single-use plastic and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, a key driver of the plastics crisis.

With COP26 on the horizon, it’s more important that we make it clear. When it comes to the shared crises or plastic and climate – reduction at the source is the path to a better future!

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