Closing the global plastic tap: whose responsibility is it?
Who is responsible?
The honest and short answer is ALL OF US! However, some actors are more strategically placed than others to lead the way. The global plastic value chain has multiple actors from raw material extractors, plastic-producing companies, manufacturing companies such as fast-moving consumer companies, distributors or transporters, the global retail industry, consumers, and waste managers.
Even though each of these actors (including external factors like governmental policies, consumer preferences, etc) has a part to play in turning off the global plastic tap, the global retail industry (online retailing or e-commerce and physical or in-store) is a major actor in determining the type of goods and services accessible to the market (consumers) and at what cost. They serve as intermediaries between producers/manufacturers and consumers - receiving products directly from manufacturers (normally in wholesale quantities) and reselling them to consumers. They come in various sizes, from multinational establishments (see, for example, the top 10 global retailers by revenue) to the small/family-run stores around the corner. 2021 for instance saw the global retail market generate sales of more than US$ 26 trillion which is forecasted to grow to US$ 31.7 trillion in 2025.
Global retail presence
It is estimated that there are more than 2 million brick-and-mortar retail stores (which could be department stores, grocery stores, general merchandise stores, e-commerce enterprises, or a combination of these) globally with some 7.9 million online (e-commerce) retailers worldwide serving billions of people annually. In the United Kingdom (UK) for instance, the retail industry consists of over 300,000 separate enterprises employing over 3 million people which represents over 8 percent of UK jobs.
Leading goods and services provided by the global retail industry include inter alia motor vehicles, fashion and apparel (microfiber), electronics, leisure and entertainment, home and do-it-yourself, office furniture and supplies, household and pet care, health and beauty, edible groceries, and food and beverages with fashion and apparel projected to be the fastest-growing sector between 2021 and 2026.
The global retail industry and plastics
Interestingly, almost all the goods and services provided by the global retail industry like those mentioned above are either wrapped/contained in plastics (which may explain why the largest use of plastics is in packaging at 42 percent) or are products with plastics as its components for example electronics. This has been shown to contribute immensely to global plastic waste generation as the packaging sector generates 46 percent of global plastic waste followed by fashion and apparel (textiles) which contributes 15 percent to global plastic waste generation.
These figures suggest that the use of plastics by the global retail industry and their associates, such as suppliers, pose a serious threat to human health and the environment as a whole. Researchers suggest that there are 1.5 million microfibers present in the aquatic environment alone. Some commentators also estimate that the economic cost of plastic pollution to society is more than US$100 billion annually.
In an attempt to close the global plastic tap, the retail industry has been involved in a number of initiatives such as reducing plastic packaging (more can still be done), recycling initiatives, reusable packaging, biodegradable/compostable packaging, and other several strategies for reducing plastic waste.
However, the global retail industry is yet to truly harness its strategic position in the global plastic value chain to influence the type of plastics its suppliers use towards turning off the global plastic tap. Even though consumers are generally to blame for plastic littering, if the global retail industry prevents and/or limits the quantity and type of plastics that enter the market, littering might also be limited. It is however worth pointing out that plastic pollution is not limited to plastic littering and involves other emissions across the plastic lifecycle. The ensuing section, therefore, offers some thoughts the global retail industry could utilise in truly maximizing its position to influence what gets out into the market and, by extension, the environment in terms of plastics.
Call to action for the global retail industry
Halt the use of non-recyclable single-use plastics in packaging
For any product to be sustainable, a life cycle assessment or an environmental product declaration must be conducted to know how it will impact the environment throughout its life cycle. Why then will companies produce and use plastics that are not currently recyclable? The global retail industry must take a stand to eliminate all plastics that are currently not recyclable from its product line. 40 years ago, most products were packaged in paper. We can surely go back to those times.
Mars is currently trying this in 500 Tesco stores across the UK. Nestlé also announced a few months ago that it is replacing the traditional plastic packaging of its Quality Street brand with recyclable paper. Imagine the impact this action will have if over 2 million brick-and-mortar retail stores and 7.9 million online stores do not receive products wrapped in non-recyclable plastics. I am certainly not oblivious of the fact that this might be difficult for small retailers but multinational retailers can surely lead this charge with their purchasing power when sourcing products from suppliers. Collaboration between retailers and suppliers is the way to go but retailers need to make their stance clear to kick-start the change.
This is nothing new as the biggest retailer in the world (Walmart) throughout its history has engaged directly with their suppliers such as Proctor & Gamble to determine inter alia product quality and pricing. If teams from multinational retailers and suppliers could be set up to agree on product quality and pricing, then surely the same can be done to agree on the phasing out of non-recyclable single-use plastics in packaging as a first step towards closing the plastic tap. Manufacturers and suppliers must therefore ensure that the global retail industry (particularly those with high purchasing power) and their associate waste management firms have a say in packaging design to produce packaging that can be managed during the end-of-life phase.
This could be guided by retailers developing a supplier code of conduct for plastic products and products with plastic packaging which is informed by inter alia the international sustainability criteria for plastics being proposed under the ongoing global plastic treaty negotiations. Suppliers can then be assessed for compliance using performance metrics which can then inform future selection, audit, and review processes. Retailers must endeavour to report these sustainability performance data using applicable global, regional, and national reporting frameworks (standards and guidelines) which could be a valuable source of valid product data.
Reduce single-use plastics
Although plastic recycling has its benefits, there are also drawbacks as recycling plants have been shown to pollute the air, water (ground and surface water), and land. Hence, preventing excessive use of recyclable single-use plastics in packaging will be a step in the right direction. The global retail industry needs to conduct analyses to find out which departments (e.g., fruit and vegetables, confectionery, meat, fish, etc) contribute to their overall plastic footprint and how that can be reduced. This is necessary as studies show that perishable food is the highest food waste source in the UK occurring mostly in homes rather than during transit from food service providers to retailers which might have an even greater environmental consequence compared to plastics.
Therefore, continuous investment in research, innovation, and technology on how the shelf life of fresh produce and other perishable foods can be extended without losing their nutrients must be encouraged. These technologies must however be energy efficient after all the biggest contributor to climate change is fossil fuel-derived energy, not fossil fuel-derived plastics. It is worth pointing out that some consumers may find this change distasteful but the task for the global retail industry is to ensure that safe alternatives used maintain the same product quality or improves it in order to change public perception.
Contribute towards the reduction of the complex plastic waste stream
Many plastic products contribute to the complex waste stream of plastics which usually leads to the contamination of recycled materials. Take, for example, a plastic bottle that might be made of PET/HDPE, the cap made of PP, and the labels usually made of LDPE. Additionally, the plastic sleeves on the bottles cannot be recycled and can therefore be problematic in recycling plants except segregation is done at the source which is normally not the case.
Moreover, plastic products made with two or more plastic resin types like toothpaste tubes are also difficult to recycle. Even though some companies have made progress in developing recyclable toothpaste tubes like Colgate and Unilever (to be introduced in 2025), the global retail industry should demand this for all brands whose products contribute to the complexity of the plastic waste stream.
Retail companies particularly multinationals with high purchasing power need to conduct a product assessment of all brands within their product portfolio to know which brands need to reduce the rate at which they contribute to the complexity of the plastic waste stream. The sustainability, product, buying, and research and development (where applicable) teams of global retail firms must continue to work together with manufacturers (at the beginning of the plastic value chain and waste management firms at the end of the plastic value chain and other stakeholders) to find a solution in using sustainable materials.
Change customer behaviour
Even though legislation and citizen education and awareness have a role to play in changing customer behaviour, a direct economic cost to consumers could be a more persuasive approach. Research has shown that bans, for example on plastic bags, are only effective when enforcement, monitoring, and more importantly sanctioning systems are strengthened. This also creates another problem with the black market sale of plastics.
There are conversations in some circles that public shaming can be used to change customer behaviour in minimising indiscriminate waste disposal which may be true, but a more effective approach could be to limit access by increasing the cost. Is not a surprise that gold bars and other precious stones cannot be found on the ground on any normal day but plastics can. While the global retail industry can lead this charge, it will also need governments to remove subsidies on fossil fuel-derived plastics.
To boost the plastic recovery capacity of the global retail industry, incentives can be used to reward clients who separate their plastic waste at source and transport it to stores when they come for shopping. The retail industry can design reward systems such as points that reduce the prices of some items based on the weight of plastics returned. This will also ensure that the plastic waste stream is clean to improve recyclability and reduce the pollution that emanates from recycling plants.
Each firm within the global retail industry must set targets on how each of these actions will be achieved (e.g., target for phasing out non-recyclable single-use plastics and single-use plastic reduction) and must report progress in its sustainability report annually. This will help assess the global plastic footprint of the global retail industry which can inform decision-making now and in the future noting that the global plastic treaty will soon be concluded and could guide future amendments of the treaty.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Daniel F. Akrofi is a Commonwealth scholar and an International Sustainability & Legal consultant. He is a Doctoral researcher in International Law & Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK, and holds an MSc. in Water, Sanitation, and International Development from Cranfield University, UK with a BSc. Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management. His expertise revolves around international law, global sustainability & strategy, global environmental (plastic) governance, circular economy, natural resource management, waste management, and WASH.