Climate | Environment | Emissions Reduction

Big business has the power to galvanise a response to the plastic threat faster than government or civil society: Andrew Forrest AO

Plastic is “one of the most pernicious threats we have to our environment”, Minderoo Foundation Co-Founder, Andrew Forrest AO, told a CEDA audience in Melbourne.

He announced a $400 million commitment to ensuring plastic only belongs in the economy, by working to raise the price of fossil fuel-derived plastics above that of recycled plastics, effectively making recycled plastics a commodity.

“Large companies like Saudi Aramco, one of the largest in the world, and Reliance Industries, the largest player in India, have shown support for adjusting the price of fossil fuel derived polymer, which is the basis for all plastic, above the price of recycled plastic,” he said.

“As soon as you do that the world switches for the same commodity to the cheaper commodity, same quality, and plastic no longer enters the environment.

“If the consumer is perfectly comfortable paying another point three of a cent per cup of coffee they will not notice, so a couple cents for a two-litre bottle of coke, but that translates into $300 to $500 a tonne.

“All throughout India or throughout Southeast Asia once we put on an extra value on fossil fuel polymer we make recycled plastic have a value, it becomes a commodity, it'll never be wasted again and the beauty is that the biggest resource of this commodity is where the pollution is worst and that’s Southeast Asia.

“You can virtually walk across rivers in Southeast Asia on plastic and it is those countries which are most amenable to change because once we adjust those levers, making fossil fuel plastic more expensive than recycled plastic, then all of those rivers don't become marine life-threatening waste, it becomes commodity.

Mr Forrest said that while some companies had been resistant to the idea, most had come on board.

“There's about 700 players in the petrochemical sector but there's 60 who could speak for the entire industry, if they move everyone moves.

“There are players in that who really don't want to change but most I've spoken to have said well let's just think about this,” he said.

“There are those who simply don't want to change and in the end they will face market pressure.

“People across the world including in the slums of India or Toorak in Melbourne have an opportunity to buy a good plastic or bad plastic, I believe they'll buy a good plastic and good plastic is all recycled and bad plastic is straight out of fossil fuel by a company who doesn't give a damn.

“You've seen what's happened with Volkswagen or BMW when they say they're going to do something and they do something else, the reaction from the consumer is vicious.

Mr Forrest said that while there are policies governments can put in place, leadership in this area would need to be market driven.

“There's three ways you can get things done in the world: civil society, that's pretty slow; you can get government to get involved, that's considerably slower again; or you can get business involved, and that gets pretty quick,” he said.

“We need lightspeed here, because the way we're going with the growth of plastic in its linear economy currently, we’ll have one-third the volume of plastic in our oceans of fish in 2025, it's not 2050 that's 2025.

“Because of the massive volume of plastic compared to fish, that's enough plastic to completely destroy marine life, you don't need to kill something several times, once will do fine.

“The Minderoo Foundation is investing across the board in plastic recycling technologies. If it happens to make a profit, it will be recycled back into the foundation so we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

“Global human behavioural change is required, the only element strong enough for that is not government, not local, not sovereign, it's the marketplace.

“The instant plastic becomes an article of value, a commodity, it will no longer be wasted, but until that happens we'll have all sorts of interventions which will be completely unsustainable and we the taxpayer will wear it.”