Opinion: Private sector can play a vital role in tackling plastic tsunami

Photo: National Caucus of Environmental Legislators

The Pacific Islands, among the most picturesque yet vulnerable regions in the world, are facing an escalating crisis: plastic pollution. The initiation of a global plastics treaty, underpinned by initiatives such as the Bridge to Busan Declaration, marks a pivotal moment in international environmental governance, with profound implications for these islands.

The proposed treaty aims to regulate the entire lifecycle of plastics, encompassing production, use, and disposal. This holistic approach is not merely about curbing the volume of plastic waste; it is a fundamental rethinking of the global plastic economy. For the Pacific Islands, which endure the brunt of the world’s plastic waste despite minimal contribution to its production, this treaty offers a beacon of hope.

Recently, the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC4) witnessed over two dozen countries endorsing the Bridge to Busan Declaration. This declaration bolsters the treaty’s objective by advocating for sustainable production levels of primary plastic polymers and emphasizing a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the harms of plastic pollution on both health and the environment.

The importance of such frameworks cannot be overstated for the Pacific Island countries especially the Smaller island states (SIS) . The Pacific nations are unique, not only in their natural beauty but also in their susceptibility to environmental degradation. Small island communities often lack the robust infrastructure necessary for effective waste management, making them particularly vulnerable to the detriments of mismanaged plastic waste. Their economic reliance on tourism and fisheries makes the stakes of environmental sustainability even higher.

The declaration and the ongoing treaty negotiations signal a move toward more stringent international standards and practices concerning plastic production and waste management. Such standards could significantly mitigate the influx of plastic debris that afflicts Pacific coastal and marine ecosystems. The declaration [GM1] promises to facilitate technology transfer and financial aid from developed nations, helping to bolster local capacities in waste management and recycling.

Role of the private sector and investment

The private sector has a crucial role to play in addressing the global plastics crisis, particularly in the Pacific Islands, where economic realities intertwine tightly with environmental sustainability. Businesses, ranging from multinational corporations to local enterprises, including small and medium outfits, can drive significant progress in reducing plastic pollution through innovative strategies and investments.

One effective approach is for companies to invest in developing alternative materials that are biodegradable or more easily recyclable than conventional plastics. Such innovation not only helps reduce dependency on single-use plastics but also opens up new market opportunities for sustainable products. Additionally, private sector entities can lead by example by adopting and promoting circular economy principles within their operations and supply chains. This involves redesigning products and processes to minimise waste, maximise resource reuse, and facilitate the continual use of resources.

Investment facilitation is key to enabling these private sector initiatives. Governments and international bodies can support these efforts through incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies, or grants for research and development in sustainable materials and waste management technologies.

An example of involving the private sector in Fiji is the USAID grant to Waste Recyclers Fiji Ltd and the Pacific Recycling Foundation to set up recycle hub bins in Suva City, targeting high-occupancy areas like office buildings and small businesses to improve waste management and reduce ocean plastic pollution.

In addition, creating more robust regulatory frameworks that encourage responsible plastic use and proper waste management can guide businesses towards more sustainable practices. A good instance of this is Vanuatu, which since 2018 has banned single-use plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene food containers, and has progressively expanded these bans to further reduce ocean plastic waste. Similarly, since 2012, the Cook Islands have enforced regulations on single-use plastics, widely promoting the principles of ‘Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle’.

Facilitating partnerships between the private sector, government agencies, and non-governmental organisations can also amplify impact through shared expertise and resources. Tonga has launched projects to improve waste management and reduce plastic pollution, including waste segregation programmes and public education campaigns promoting recycling and proper disposal.

Establishing clear guidelines and standards for what constitutes sustainable plastic products and practices is essential. This helps ensure that private sector investments are both environmentally effective and economically viable. International agreements like the global plastics treaty can provide a framework for these standards, ensuring that they are aligned with global efforts to combat plastic pollution.

However, the efficacy of these international agreements hinges on the commitment of all nations, especially the major plastic-producing countries. The global north, historically the largest contributor to plastic pollution, must lead by demonstrating significant reductions in plastic output and improvements in waste management strategies.

The global plastics treaty and the Bridge to Busan declaration represent crucial steps toward resolving a dire environmental crisis. They offer a framework within which the Pacific Islands can advocate for tailored solutions to their unique challenges, ensuring that global strategies are inclusive and effective.

As these international negotiations progress, it is imperative for the world to listen and respond to the needs of the Pacific Islands, transforming them from passive victims into active participants in the global dialogue on sustainability. This global effort is not just for their survival but for the health of our planet.

Glynis Miller is the Trade & Investment Commissioner of Pacific Trade Invest New Zealand.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.