Davos takes up plastic waste, with hope and a warning to companies

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YouTube Coke CEO James Quincey

Plastics waste had a prominent place at this year’s Davos gathering of business and political leaders, and at least for a few of the CEOs involved, there was some hope that the next decade could see real progress.

The heads of Dow Chemical Co., Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., along with high-ranking environment officials from France and Vietnam, took part in the kind of televised panel Jan. 24 that only an event like Davos could pull off.

The problems with plastic waste remain daunting: it seems there’s a daily drumbeat of studies and distressing news about plastics in the ocean. And the French minister made it clear that her government plans active campaigns to get more companies to make commitments around plastic pollution.

But I wanted to use this blog to highlight what I thought was an interesting sense from those leaders about how they see the seeds of positive change.

Dow CEO Jim Fitterling, for example, answered a question about what the next decade will bring by telling the gathering that he hopes it can “stem the tide.”

And Coke CEO James Quincey, Pepsi CEO Ramon Laguarta and Brune Poirson, the French environment minister of state, all said they see “huge progress” coming as public concern drives government and industry to do more.

Fitterling, who’s also very involved in the industry’s Alliance to End Plastic Waste that was launched on Jan. 16, suggested plastics producers are looking at new (and as yet largely untested) chemical recycling technologies to play a big role.

“I hope in 10 years we have stemmed the tide of plastics going to the ocean and we’ve made a big dent in the cleanup of the plastic waste that’s in the ocean,” Fitterling said. “That we’re not just mechanically recycling plastics, which is what we do today, but we’ve also got chemical recycling. It would be great if we could get the chemical recycling back to a monomer state where I can make plastics out of that same plastic again.”

Chemical recycling got other attention at Davos. Resin maker Sabic, for example, used the event to announce that its partnership with U.K.-based chemical recycler Plastic Energy Ltd. will supply polymers made from hard-to-recycle mixed plastic waste to Unilever, Vinventions and Walki Group.

Pepsi’s Laguarta sees a lot of momentum among consumer product companies to find ways to use less plastic when they can, as well as a strong personal commitment from business leaders around waste issues. “We are creating the right governance and funding to create action,” he said.

“I’m quite optimistic that by 2030, I don’t know if we’re going to be solving the problem, but we’ll have made huge progress against where we are today,” Laguarta said. “I’m sure technology, funding, people, I’m very optimistic on how we’re approaching the problem.”

Poirson, likewise, predicted “huge progress” around plastics in the environment over the next 10 years but she also made clear that she believes government pressure needs to continue.

She argued plastic product bans are sometimes appropriate. And she said France will use its presidency of the G7 economic bloc this year to push plastic waste issues, as Canada did for its turn at G7 leadership in 2018.

She said France wants to build on work of the One Planet Summit — a joint initiative of the French government, the United Nations, the World Bank and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“What we want to do as part of the G7 is we want to build a coalition where about 20 to 25 percent of the stakeholders, specifically private companies, are actually joining action and a platform within the framework of the One Planet Summit -- that actually is wanting to fight plastic pollution,” Poirson said.

One goal will be to get more companies to participate in campaigns, she said.

“It will send a signal to the 80 percent remaining part of the market that is not part of the alliance against plastic pollution, that they actively choose to stay out of it so we can shame them,” Poirson said. “And it shows also to the regulators that if 20 percent of their market is ready to do more to fight plastic pollution, then the regulator has no excuse for not regulating.”