A new report entitled Clearing a Path Through the Waste: Transparency in the Plastics Supply Chain identifies the lack of transparency across the plastics supply chain as a key impediment to making significant progress in fighting ocean plastic pollution.
Compiled by the Australia-based philanthropic organisation Minderoo Foundation in collaboration with Systemiq, a global environmental consultancy, the report finds that global efforts to change industry practices, including producing less plastic from virgin feedstock, collecting more plastic waste, and increasing recycling, are all hampered by a lack of data, information and intelligence. As a result, ‘well-intentioned’ efforts are falling short of their expectations and potential, the authors write.
“I think that what we’ve observed, and what we call for in the report, is that there is an urgent need for more transparency to ensure that good intentions are actually focussed on the right things,” said Dominic Charles, one of the report’s authors and director of Finance & Transparency at Minderoo Foundation’s Sea.
“Investors must have the right information in order to make the right investment decisions, governments need to have the right information to make policies - and it is incumbent on industry to commit to greater transparency. It is essential that everyone has the rights facts and the right intelligence, to make sure that the most informed and efficient decisions are being made so that good intentions follow through.”
Every month, over one million tons of plastic enters rivers and oceans worldwide, and billions of dollars are spent by governments in attempting to manage plastic waste. At the same time, much of the industry of plastic producers, users and investors operate under a shroud of mystery.
It is a systemic problem, noted Charles. “There is a message to industry, about the need for greater voluntary disclosure. A message to government, appealing for more regulated disclosure, in the shape of mandatory reporting about plastics usage and the plastics on the market; and then also a message to the NGOs, IGOs and the academic community to suggest the most fruitful way to continue what we describe as ‘outside-in reporting’ and shadow reporting.”
These practices cannot be implemented in isolation. Looking at what needs to be done by different types of stakeholders in order to systemically increase the level of transparency across the entire ecosystem, the report points to six high-priority transparency issues which together constitute a comprehensive roadmap for action. “For the how and the what needs to be done to achieve effective disclosure and enable better decision-making to transparency,” emphasised Charles.
In addition, the current lack of transparency leads to a misallocation of resources which diminishes the effectiveness of efforts to deal with plastic pollution.
“Without transparency, companies and investors do not know the extent to which they are exposed to economic, legal and reputational risks from plastic pollution,” Charles said.
“Equally, governments and regulators have major problems in creating effective policies for plastic pollution and directing limited resources to protect health, ecosystems, and the economy. Above all, it is not possible to hold producers and users of plastics to account without transparency into their plastics footprints.”
He acknowledged that the various projects that are under way, such as the blockchain pilots aimed at enhancing traceability and transparency, could enable greater disclosure. This report, however, is more a call for all actors across the industry to make a greater, broader commitment to transparency.
“That covers a lot more than specific use case of blockchain in order to track material flows, but it’s also about greater disclosure of financial flows, greater transparency into the kinds of targets and policies and commitments that are being set. And even about bringing a greater understanding of the impacts of plastics, specific types of plastic on the environment and on human health,” said Charles.
“This paper is a wake-up call and it’s a call for commitment to greater transparency. We lay out what’s required and who needs to do what. The thing that’s missing is how quickly people are going to step up.”
In other words, our good intentions are precisely that – intentions?
“I’d say so,” said Charles. “The current rate of change and transition to a circular economy is not meeting the urgency of the problem or the ambition of government and industry. The ambition is currently not being met by the actual change going on.”
To date, the commitments made tend to be too narrow and to focus on countries with low leakage rates. The authors of this report argue that, in order to have the chance to move to a world free of plastic pollution and with high circularity, far more ambitious, efficient and comprehensive measures are needed.
"Clearing a Path Through the Waste: Transparency in the Plastics Supply Chain” offers a pathway to institutionalise the elements required to create sufficient transparency.
“What is now required is for governments to implement the policy needed, genuine leadership by industry, pressure from investors and support from civil society and academia to deliver on this roadmap.”