Circling back: G7 and the next revolution
G7 Summit

Circling back: G7 and the next revolution

The olive ridley turtle recently ended a 20-year absence from the beaches around India’s megacity of Mumbai. It was a highly symbolic moment, underscoring that environmental recovery is both possible and, as a measure of an area’s good health, wholly worthwhile.

Just two years ago, the yellow sands of Versova beach near Mumbai were invisible, covered up by piles of trash. Most of it was plastic – items such as discarded shopping bags and packaging spewed out by the city and washed up during each tide. Then an army of volunteers began cleaning the beach on weekends. Seven thousand tons of plastic waste later, the turtles made a comeback.

Plastic is one of the most useful things ever invented. Its uses are many and often miraculous. It saves lives in medicine, keeps food clean and is at the centre of the renewable energy revolution. The problem is us: we got lazy. More than 12 million tons of plastic enter our oceans every year. It is destroying plants, animals and livelihoods. It is in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Last year at the United Nations Environment Assembly, nearly 200 countries recognised that we are fast becoming a plastic planet and agreed to a non-binding agreement to address plastic pollution. But time is not on our side. My home country Norway was one of the first countries to call for a global agreement on mercury in 2003, and the Minamata Convention on Mercury came into force in 2017. We do not have the luxury of 14 years to wait for a convention on plastic pollution. The garbage patch in the ocean is getting bigger, and 99% of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by mid century. New research suggests that when you are drinking bottled water, you are also drinking thousands of tiny pieces of plastic waste.

G7 members have made some progress on addressing single-use plastic. Many US cities have banned or put heavy taxes on plastic bags, as have some municipalities in Canada. The United States, Canada, France and the United Kingdom have banned microbeads. Europe’s plastics strategy for a circular economy aims to ensure all plastic packaging on the European Union market is recyclable by 2030. Policymakers and citizen action have taken us this far, but what we need now is to reimagine business and behaviour.

This means a rethink of how we design products and end the throw-away culture. In 2016, a global population of more than seven billion people produced over 300 million tons of plastic. Planet Earth has no more space for products with a useful life that is measured in just seconds, minutes or hours.

We throw away hundreds of billions of dollars in plastic, electronic and food waste a year. But imagine the opportunities if we viewed waste as a resource, an investment and as an employment provider? Taking a more circular approach allows us to think bigger than we have ever thought before. And the time is ripe for another revolution, to build the next frontiers of business. At a time when several G7 economies are looking for growth, changing the way we produce and consume could be the next big economic victory.

Many businesses are looking keenly at how to close the materials loop. Danone, which produces Indonesia’s leading brand of bottled water, has set up several recycling cooperatives with litter collectors, creating jobs and providing social services and microfinance. The circular economy can also span the next generation of start-ups, because green business is good business. Method is one of the largest and fastest-growing green cleaning products companies in its field. It uses recyclable materials and renewable energy. Its ‘Oceans Plastics Bottle’ project has led to using discarded plastic from the sea in its packaging.

Despite some progress by governments and business, transforming our economies to follow a circular route will depend enormously on changing individual behaviour. Our current lifestyle throws away 80% of products within six months of production. So any move to a circular economy must put people at the centre of the transformation. We cannot close the loop without them.