Turning the tide on plastic pollution: interview with Svein Tveitdal, former Director in the UN Environmental Programme

Turning the tide on plastic pollution: interview with Svein Tveitdal, former Director in the UN Environmental Programme

The Planet Mark™ interviews Svein Tveitdal, former director in the UN Environmental Programme, on our growing plastic waste crisis

 

Q.What do you think would be the single most important thing for businesses and individuals to do to reduce their plastic pollution?

Just 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide, one third ends up in the natural world and if current trends continue, by as early as 2050 our oceans could contain more plastics than fish, by weight. However, fully addressing this issue goes beyond reusing plastic water bottles, not using plastic drinking straws and taking reusable bags to the supermarket.

I believe if we want to see widespread change, it must be introduced on societal, corporate, and governmental levels. As consumers, we must leverage our purchasing power to choose plastic friendly products from the outset, thus incentivising producers to maximise the use of recycled components. In response, companies need to be proactive about their use of plastics. With multinationals such as Unilever pledging to utilise only reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025, there is no excuse for other high-profile corporations not to follow suit. Finally, legislation must be implemented to ensure businesses and individuals adhere to rigorous policy.

Q. Is there a particular plastics campaign you think has been effective?

10 years ago, I used to work as a director at the UN environment headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Back then, there was a serious plastic problem in the region. Nowadays Kenyans producing, selling or even using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000 (£31,000). When I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi in January passengers was warned about this and asked to leave all plastic bags onboard. Elsewhere, restaurants in Nairobi are now packaging food deliveries in shoe boxes and wooden containers.

This Kenyan ban is an exemplary piece of legislation, which illustrates the value of stringent government policy, and shows the situation can be improved quickly and effectively.

Q. Do you think Theresa May’s vow to eliminate plastics by 2042 lacks urgency?

Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, which could create an environmental crisis. Theresa May’s pledge is welcome but too slow, I echo the statement made by Greenpeace’s UK executive director – we need a 25-month emergency plan, not a 25-year vision. The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear. A recent study discovered that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibres into the environment. On top of this, reports have unveiled that 90% of water in plastic bottles is thought to be infected by microplastic pieces.

In the light of these discoveries there is now a proposal from the Norwegian Conservative Party that in three years it should be prohibited to sell washing machines that do not have a built-in microplastics filter. This initiative, along with the legislation introduced in Kenya highlights that many facets of the plastic problem are far easier to solve than that of climate change, for example. It’s far more complicated to shut down coal plants/ power plants and so forth, than it is to change behaviours regarding plastic use.

Q. Can the SDG’s help businesses address their plastic pollution?

Yes, the SDG’s can provide a framework to drive industry action. Businesses worldwide are committing themselves to align with these goals. The SDGs address real world problems, with precise metrics to evaluate the success of corporate initiatives. This specificity helps to eradicate greenwashing and gives business measurable targets to work towards.

For example, Unilever is clearly and measurably aligned with SDG 6 – ensuring clean water and sanitation for all. The company lists the countries in which its water purification products are available the annual number of litres of water purified to safety for drinking, and the cost of its purification products. As a result, Unilever provides transparent metrics for analysing their contributions and evaluating whether their products are making a difference in areas where clean water is not always accessible or equitable.

Q. Do you think the UN has been effective in initiating government action regarding plastic pollution?

I recall one of Kofi Annan’s last statements as Secretary General of the United Nations when visiting the UN Environment in Nairobi. He regretted that the UN had not managed to produce a climate policy in accordance with recommendations from its own experts. The UN is only as strong as its weakest link, so it is slightly hamstringed in what it can do.

However, there are signs of positive change. In December 2017 all 193 members of the UN Environment Assembly signed a resolution to start monitoring the amount of plastic they put into the ocean. Norway, which started the pledge has seen the direct impact of plastic pollution, with scientists having recently found 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste inside the stomach of a whale stranded off the coast.

Q. The Planet Mark™ is helping businesses measure and reduce their waste. How do you think businesses should shape their targets and objectives regarding waste reduction?

You cannot reduce your plastic consumption if you do not measure it. Measuring your plastic consumption is the bare minimum. To make additional change businesses need to start with degradable material. The vast majority of plastic pollution comes from the packaging, it is sensible therefore that businesses should aim to only use reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. Now there’s a real opportunity for businesses to take the initiative and cut back on plastic waste before it’s too late.

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