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Building the Global Movement Against Plastic Pollution

April 22, 2022

The Plastic Solutions Fund is working to build a world in which only truly necessary and non-toxic plastics are produced, and even those are reused, repaired, or recycled. A sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Fund focuses on collaborative projects that contribute to an emerging global movement for a healthier, more sustainable planet.

Nicky Davies is the executive director at the Plastic Solutions Fund and previously served as a program director at Greenpeace USA, the deputy director for climate and energy at Greenpeace International, and the executive director of Conservation Council ACT Region in Canberra, Australia. Davies spoke with RPA to discuss the vision of the Plastic Solutions Fund and how global efforts to combat plastic pollution have evolved.

You have extensive experience working across a wide range of energy, environment, and climate-related issues. Can you tell us about your journey and how that work has evolved?

I grew up in Canberra, the capital of Australia, which was planned at the height of the garden city design movement. The natural environment is an essential part of the city, and I grew up surrounded by the Australian landscape and was driven to try and protect it.

As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the interconnectedness between human health and the health of the planetary environment. I came of age as an activist when we were starting to understand the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the ozone layer and the climate. This activism helped me recognize that not only governments, but big companies around the world were more interested in profit than in protecting the health of the people or the environment. As a result, climate change has been perhaps the most significant common thread throughout my career.

I’ve also been fortunate to live and work around the world. Extraordinary people are doing extraordinary things all over the world that most people have never heard about. They don’t look for fame or even credit for what they’re doing but are working every day to make their local environment a better place for their family and their communities. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky over a lot of years to be connected to many of those people and to feel that the work that I’ve done—first at Greenpeace and now with the Plastic Solutions Fund—is supporting the work of local activism. And I firmly believe that the aggregation of power at the grassroots level is what’s going to make the difference in terms of the change we seek.

That brings us to the Plastic Solutions Fund. Throughout my career, one of the key skills I’ve cultivated is the ability to build collaborative strategies, which was critical at Greenpeace, an organization with 35-40 national offices around the world. Some folks who knew about my background asked if I would help build a collaborative strategy on plastic, even though I didn’t know a lot about plastic at the time. But as I started to work with civil society groups around the world, I started to understand that the problem with plastic was the same problem that I had been fighting in a variety of ways all along, which is the power of the fossil fuel industry and the consequences of their power on the environment and people around the world.

Now, I see the plastic problem as both a metaphor for what is wrong with the world generally and the power of the fossil fuel industry writ large. Single-use plastic is a part of virtually every single person on the planet’s lives and increasingly in their bodies. It lasts forever and yet it’s used for an average of 12 minutes. The sheer scale of the issue means that we’ve been able to engage with the general population and drive a significant impact on addressing the problem.

When it comes to single-use plastics, what is the scale of the issue and what kinds of solutions are required to address it?

Single-use plastic touches almost every part of our lives, even if we’re trying to avoid it. It’s certainly an enormous problem and the fossil fuel industry is keen to ensure that it becomes an even bigger problem, because they have started to accept that climate-related campaigning on the energy and transport systems is going to have a major impact on their bottom line. Consequently, these companies are looking to petrochemicals, which are used in plastic production and fertilizer and pesticides as the future of the business. So, we’ve got some big battles ahead of us.

It’s also the right time for this battle. Today, there’s a clear understanding not only of the impacts of plastic on the environment but also on our health. For example, the research that came out just in the last couple of weeks about the fact that we all have plastic in our bloodstreams is scary and could serve as a real driver of change.

There’s a reason why you see plastic everywhere—on our supermarket shelves and in stores: because it’s super easy for companies to put their brands on it, on every single serving of the item that you eat or drink. It’s been an extremely convenient way for companies to promote their businesses. It’s all about the packaging. The consequence is that their brand is on every single serving of their product and their product leaks into the environment in extraordinary numbers. So, people understand who is responsible at one level for the problem and have started to demand change. Governments around the world are starting to look for solutions.

In fact, the battle over the next five years will largely be about the solutions that we promote. The first and most obvious step is the elimination of as much single-use plastic as possible. We believe that there is a better way to deliver products and services. Next, we need to ensure that recyclable plastic is in fact recycled. We’ve learned over the last three or four years that the state of recycling is really bad, not only here in the United States but globally, and that the recycling system is broken. To put this into perspective, only about 9 percent of the plastic in the United States is recycled and it’s only about 12 to 14 percent in Europe. We need to build a better recycling system that gets that up to 20 or 25 percent.

We need to build what we call the reuse ecosystem, which is a system intentionally designed to protect the people and the planet in which packaging is reused repeatedly rather than used once and thrown out. And we need to build an infrastructure to help products and packaging move around our communities. It’s not about everyone taking their reusable cup to the coffee store. It’s about treating packaging like a public good with an ecosystem to move around. That way, when you go to the store, for example, you can use reusable containers that you bring back to the store next time or take them to another drop-off point.  The key is that there are enough drop-off points that you never have to go out of your way to do it. There are examples of these sorts of infrastructure grids already happening in Europe, and in fact, this is the way things used to happen in many different parts of the world before single-use plastic took over.

Ultimately, we’re working toward a more circular global economy. Part of the problem is that we have a linear economy where you dig it up, use it, and throw it away. We’re starting to understand that there’s no “away.” Carbon emissions don’t go away. Plastic doesn’t go away; it ends up in the ocean, but that’s not “away.” The toxic chemicals in plastic aren’t going away, even if we can’t see them. They’re in our bodies. We need a circular system where all inputs are used over and over again and to make sure that those inputs are healthy for the environment and people.

This isn’t a “pie in the sky” approach. The European Union is currently legislating to build a circular economy. This is something that governments around the world are starting to understand. It’s the only way to ensure that we don’t harm the systems that we rely upon for our continued survival.

The Plastic Solutions Fund often emphasizes the need for system-level solutions. What does that look like from a practical level?

On a practical level, we need two parallel tracks in terms of our funding. One is long-term power building for civil society organizations and partners around the world to build the movement for change, strengthen its capability, and align with other movements so that we have a groundswell of public support and public opinion and real momentum for change at all levels. Currently, 40 percent of our resources are going toward our power-building goals.

The second is to put pressure directly on the levers that are available to us now, knowing that for now, that’s our best guess of where putting effort will create tipping points for the sort of change that we seek. So, we have a second set of goals which we call priority initiative goals built around those tipping points—one of which, for example, is establishing the enabling conditions for the reuse economy. We know that we have to support the work happening in the European Union to create this exemplar of how to establish reuse. We need to help create some of the financial underpinnings for the reuse economy. For example, we have a small grant focused on identifying opportunities in the Biden infrastructure bill to develop the infrastructure required for the reuse economy.

Another one of our goals involves the use of plastic sachets, particularly in Asia. These are little single-serve pouches that look like and are slightly larger than a ketchup packet. In some regions, every single serve of washing liquid, coffee, shampoo, or face moisturizer is delivered in these sachets rather than in bottles. They’re completely unrecyclable, and so they’re one of the most obvious focuses for elimination. We’re building a campaign to put pressure on companies to redesign the way they provide products in the Global South and Asia, in particular, and on governments to eventually ban their use.

One final thing I’ll say is that the industry is trying to expand. They’re relying upon their power and their influence on governments to do so. It’s a priority for us to build up opposition to this expansion, whether it’s chemical production facilities in Louisiana or incinerators and other disposal facilities in cities like Baltimore. We need to support the opposition to those efforts. In other words, we need to undermine the industry’s solutions while we promote our solutions. We must start to undermine the reputational power that many of these companies have—particularly fast-moving consumer goods companies—but also build the financial risk to these companies that are investing increasingly in technologies that people understand have a serious environmental and climate impact.

What’s next for the movement in 2022 and beyond?

First, I’d say that this issue moves faster than any other issue I’ve ever worked on—and that provides an incredible opportunity. It’s risky because it can move very quickly in the wrong direction. But over the last five years, it has moved incredibly quickly in the right direction. One of the outcomes is that global governments have recently agreed to negotiate a global plastic treaty. After several years of preparatory conversations, they’ve come up with an agreement to start negotiating within certain parameters. Those parameters are consistent with the ones that we wanted and with people who want transformational change—because of the power that people’s movements writ large had within that system. We’re on the cusp of an incredible opportunity to build a global framework that describes the kind of future that we seek.

The opportunity isn’t just about the treaty process itself; it also shows very clearly both how far we’ve come and what the opportunity and the threats are moving forward. The industries associated with plastic are gearing up for the fight of their life the context of the global plastic treaty, which is going to make our lives more difficult. And the fact that this battle is about to be engaged in such a public high-profile and in some ways transparent place provides an opportunity to leverage not just the treaty negotiations but everything else that’s happening in terms of pursuing our goal.

So, we’re looking at what needs to happen to support the diplomatic process involved in negotiating a treaty within the UN system between almost 200 member states. Perhaps more importantly, we’re excited about how this treaty process can provide a platform from which to leverage the change in governments that we need at the national level; the leadership from corporations that we need to see; and to strengthen the movement in pursuit of what we seek to achieve.

Photo credit: Plastic Solutions Fund, “Buidling the movement in Indonesia”

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