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    Consumers, Brands and Climate Action

    by Alexandra De Jager, AWG Paris, FAUSA, Environment Team Member

    September 20, 2019 was the first day of a week-long Global Climate Strike, and sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg was in New York City to lead the way. Earlier in the week, she addressed the US Congress and said that climate change is “above all, an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” In this meeting, Representative Graves of Louisiana attempted to pass the blame for carbon emissions on to China. “Another perspective,” Thunberg replied. “I am from Sweden. It’s a small country. And there it’s the same argument: Why should we do anything - just look at the US.” More importantly, she said that she was not there to give a prepared speech; she was attaching her testimony: “[T]he IPCC special report on global warming... I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don't want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists.”

    Indeed, our existential crisis is twofold: the first aspect is climate change and the warming of the planet through methane and CO2 emission into the air, which results in the warming of the planet. A lot can be said about this complex issue and its causes, but in this article, I’d like to focus on the second aspect of the climate crisis: the destruction of the environment through human trash, deforestation for farming and livestock, and the use of everyday chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. An important driver of this aspect is our love affair with modern conveniences such as single use plastic and disposable fashion. While many of these issues, like deforestation, bottles 4276208 960 720are beyond the influence of the average person, the consumption of plastic is within the control of the consumer if we are aware of it. For starters, we must be conscious of the throw-away culture that was helped by the invention of cheap plastic. According to one report by the Guardian, “a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021…. More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3 billion.” The frequent images of whales and other dead sea animals with their stomachs full of plastic have now become commonplace. Once pristine pacific beaches are now awash with plastic waste. Plastic does not go away; it just gets broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Scientists recently calculated that people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 micro plastics a year.

    Recycling is not the solution!

    The average American goes through more than 250 pounds of plastic waste, and much of that comes from packaging. We have been fooled into thinking the problem does not exist because we recycle. Sunil Bagaria, who runs the recycling company GDB International, laments: “European countries are recycling 35% to 40% [of their plastic waste]. The U.S. only recycles 10%. How tragic is that?" But here’s the real kicker. “The vast majority of plastic that has ever been produced - 79% - has actually ended up in landfills or scattered around the world or burned, not refashioned into new products, which is what we hope for when we talk about recycling,” Sharon Lerner of the Intercept says, “For plastic bags, less than 1% of tens of billions that are used in the US alone are recycled. Overall in the US, our plastic recycling rate peaked in 2014 at 9.5%.” Another report says a whopping 91% of plastics are not recycled. Up until 2017, the US and other countries were selling their recyclables to China and other Asian countries. Because a lot of the plastics are actually not recyclable, China is now refusing to take the trash of the world. It’s piling up at recycling facilities and going to poor countries that also don’t have the means to recycle some of those Plastic garbageplastics. “We can't recycle our way out of this problem,” she says. “We have to buy less plastic, and we need American and other businesses to make less plastic. There are alternatives, and I want to emphasize even the most careful consumer has a hard time avoiding plastics.”

    As if our plastic problem couldn’t get any worse, a report from ICIS, a plastics market research company, says the petrochemical industry will likely double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016 to 2024. And the American Chemistry Council, which represents, among others, plastics manufacturers, says it expects industry to spend nearly $25 billion to build new plastic manufacturing capacity by 2025. (That compares with the $1.5 billion that the industry plans to spend on cleaning up plastic waste.) The World Economic Forum has issued a report on plastic that predicts a doubling of production in the next two decades.” In other words, continue to make more and people will find a way to use it.

    Consumers or Manufacturers?

    Is the problem plastic or people? Or put another way, are consumers the problem or the manufacturers? There are many answers. One answer SDG goal 12is to consciously use less (SDG 13, Climate Action). We have made a start with using our own grocery bags and water bottles, but much more can be done. Manufacturers can produce sustainably (SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production), and brands can package better. Do supermarkets need to plastic-wrap four artichokes together? We can be more informed about what actually gets recycled. Instead of throwing away or recycling, we can reuse. There is a movement now for a “circular economy,” in which big companies such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Unilever are experimenting with refillable containers for products like detergents, dry food and even Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Finally, the answer is partnering and sharing responsibility. We as consumers alone cannot solve this problem; we need to let the brands know we want better and less packaging, and we will reward them with a return for their “good behavior.” Let’s start with being aware. As Greta Thunberg said, “How can we solve a problem that we don’t even fully understand?” Let’s start with our consumer behavior and the influence the brands have on it. Then let’s affect change by changing not only our behavior but that of the brands. FAWCO as an international organization can play its part and use its influence. Look out for our #BrandAudit initiative in the coming months!


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