Triodos Bank and Triodos Investment Management are among the 160 financial institutions, representing 15.5 USD trillion combined assets, that call for an ambitious international treaty to end plastic pollution, emphasizing the host of advantages in transitioning away from (crude oil-based) plastic-dependent economic systems. The statement helps highlight the numerous inefficiencies and irrational practices currently in place around plastic - underscoring the need to incentivize alternative approaches. A reduction in our economy’s reliance on single-use plastics translates into a reduction of the environmental and public health toll of plastic production, waste management, and pollution throughout plastic supply chains.

Sustainable substitute materials for plastic are currently not the norm because recycling of plastics is still presented as a viable solution, a silver bullet to the waste and pollution problem. The difficulty with plastic recycling is that a majority of the seven plastic types on the market are not recyclable, and those that may be recyclable in, for instance, the Netherlands are not necessarily recyclable in Fiji or Brazil. In many parts of the world, the infrastructure which is needed to recycle plastics (large-scale waste collection and management systems) simply do not exist yet. Therefore, we need to look beyond recycling, to build a vision and incentives that will eliminate most plastic use in the long term. This implies that the focus must be solely on reducing the use of plastics and re-using plastics, not on recycling.

Is plastic replaceable?
There is a share of plastics in the economy which we currently cannot replace, because there is no suitable alternative. Examples that come to mind are from sectors like healthcare, where it is difficult to imagine using a different material for tubing, sutures and the like. However, this is no excuse to avoid replacing the plastic applications for which there is a substitute material available. It is perfectly possible to stop using plastics in most of the items used for packaging in the food and beverage industry, in construction, mobility, textiles and retail – if the right incentives are in place. Even in healthcare there is an over-use of plastics, and some applications could turn to alternative materials instead.

Role of the financial sector
If we are to tackle the root causes of plastic pollution, the financial sector also has a role to play by:

  • Financing more substitute materials that can replace plastics in various applications;
  • Supporting companies that phase out plastics wherever they are replaceable or unnecessary;
  • Encouraging the elimination of certain types of plastic resins (which are difficult or impossible to recycle);
  • Advocating for mandatory composition requirements that create markets for recycled plastics;
  • Calling for fiscal policies like the externalities tax that would balance the playing field between cheap, virgin plastic resins and recycled plastic resins;
  • Encouraging companies to ensure their products are recyclable - not only in theory but also in practice, by working with its suppliers and waste management companies to make sure that what the company designs and produces can be recycled and re-used by waste management companies in the locations where the products are sold.

Making something recyclable in theory does not mean it will be recycled in practice. Putting all our efforts into recycling is a dreamt-up end-of-pipe solution: we keep everything the same but assume we can resolve the problem through recycling. That is a difficult approach – one that has up till now been applied with very limited success. It’s time to concentrate on strategies more rigorous than recycling, like reduction in use (through elimination and substitution) as part of a broader strategy for sustainable resource management.