“Plastic Packaging – A Source of Waste of Resource?”
Since, the launch of its Sustainable Living Plan in UAE and across MENA in 2012, Unilever has annually updated its key stakeholders on the progress made against its sustainability ambitions. These annual events also serve as a platform to bring together different stakeholders to discuss and collaborate on various sustainability challenges.
The 2019 event titled “Plastic Packaging – A Source of Waste or Resource?” focused on plastic packaging challenges, and potential practical solutions beyond simply banning plastics and using alternative materials, engaging 35+ school and university students and industry, not-for-profit & government experts in a constructive discussion.
Is Plastic A Waste Or Resources?
In recent years, decades after it became an integral part of our lives, plastic has become the most debated topic across the globe. 2019, saw the rise of climate change activism from youth across the globe to take urgent action against plastics. Its low cost, versatility and durability has resulted in its twenty-fold growth since 1964 with plastics increasingly littering the environment and clogging waterways, rivers and oceans.
Plastic however serves as a key enabler for sectors as diverse as packaging, construction, transportation, healthcare and electronics. Plastic Packaging plays an important role in protecting products and reducing waste. But at the same time, it represents a one-time use item that is quickly discarded upon reaching the consumer. Just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, and only 9% is recycled. Meanwhile, a third is left in fragile ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill. Many environmental activists are therefore calling for a ban on single-use plastics.
However, the very properties that make plastic so dangerous - its durability and long lifespan - also make it a great social and economic asset. We can recycle and reuse it almost endlessly, via implementation of a circular economy.
Unilever is committed to keeping its plastic packaging within the loop and out of the environment by ensuring that 100% of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Unilever furthered this commitment in October 2019 by pledging to reduce the use of virgin plastic in its packaging by 50% while also helping to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells by 2025.
However, Unilever believes that addressing the plastic issue is a shared responsibility. Hence, in contrast to its 2018 sustainability annual event which focused on a discussion within industry and government on opportunities for collaborations at government and industry level, the 2019 annual event engaged the youth, aiming to understanding their expectations from businesses and government, while inspiring and empowering them to create disruptive solutions to address the plastic problem
The agenda for the day included inspiring talks by Sagarika Sriram, a 12-year local student environmentalist, and Simran Chowdhry, founder of Bluephin and winner of the 2018 Unilever Young Entrepreneur Award.
‘The Great Plastic Debate” had industry, youth and NGOs as 3 separate parties discussing plastic packaging waste, its advantages & disadvantages, challenges around plastic and way forward.
Round table discussions brought together students, industry representatives, NGO and government experts around 6 tables to discuss the challenges with plastic packaging while preparing recommendations on developing innovative and circular strategies and solutions.
The students thereafter presented their potential solutions to His Excellency Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change & Environment, who in his address outlined the UAE’s ambition to address climate change and plastic waste in general, while encouraging the students to be drivers of change.
Some key issues discussed and recommendations made were:
- Lack of awareness and understanding amongst UAE residents of the impact of single use plastics on the environment
- Lack of access to recycling facilities
- Low understanding of the need to recycle
- Easy, and over availability of single use plastics
- Lack of environmental fees to address the use of single use plastics
- Given the convenient lifestyle in the UAE, consumers don’t see the value or need to recycle
- Plastic is cheap to produce and buy, especially single use plastics
- Encouraging recycling by providing infrastructure within communities such as local recycling bins
- Raising consumers awareness on the need for reducing plastic packaging, and to look out for packaging with recycled content when making purchases. This in turn will push manufacturers to relook at their product packaging life cycle and explore options to increase the recyclability of their packaging
- Creating incentive and penalty systems, to reinforce good behavior in the form of discounts for consumers and trade incentives for businesses, supported by penalties in the form of to higher prices for both consumers and businesses
- Imposing tax on single use plastics and higher tax on plastics that can be easily avoided, for example plastics water bottles with a capacity less than 500 ml should be taxed higher in order to discourage purchase
- Raising awareness and continuously educating students on the importance of protecting the environment, responsible consumption and rethinking choices when using plastics
- Placing environmentally conscious messages on plastic bags to raise awareness,
- Creating infrastructure and regulations that support sorting of waste at source
- Reiterating the importance and value of plastic as a resource that can be used and reused rather than be landfilled. A proper system that looks at the full life cycle of plastic packaging can ensure that plastics remain in circulation as a resource and does not get thrown into the environment
- Introduction of mandatory climate awareness test for UAE citizens when getting their residency visa’s that will help to raise awareness and drive home the urgency to act today
- Development of an app that can earn consumers points for reducing, reusing and recycling plastic. This could further be translated to discounts and incentives
- Setting up eco-clubs & mandating recycling bins in schools
54% of attendees rated the event 5 with the remaining 46% rating it 4, on a scale of 5.
Given the success of the event Unilever aims to continue their engagement and conversation with the students and other stakeholders to explore further the potential of the recommendations made and translate some of the potential solutions into action.