Survey: Going plastic-free an opportunity, not a burden, for SMEs

This is according to a global survey of more than 130 small businesses across the world, carried out by WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The businesses were asked whether they are likely to support the introduction of a new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution. Convened by the UN, the treaty will cover all stages of the plastic life-cycle, from production to waste management.

It is hoped that the treaty will be finalised later this year, though recent meetings to discuss the mechanics of its implementation have proven less productive than hoped.

Over time, national governments in countries that support the treaty will likely have to legislate to achieve its key outcomes. They may set time-bound, numerical targets to cut plastic production and boost recycling rates, backed with delivery policies such as new taxes, incentives and disclosure requirements.

While this will place a burden on businesses in the near term, almost two-thirds (63%) of the MSMEs surveyed said they view the treaty as a good thing overall. The remainder (37%) take a neutral stance.

Most MSMEs (75%) were aware of the treaty before being provided with additional context by the survey operators.

MSMEs viewing the treaty in a positive light anticipate that short-term costs incurred from disclosures, changing suppliers and/or changing materials will be outweighed by longer-term benefits – to their own bottom line and to the private sector as a whole.

Foreseen benefits include job creation in alternative materials, reuse and recycling. A similar survey of those providing services and innovations in these fields found that none see the treaty negatively, while 69% anticipate net benefits.

MSMEs notably provide 70% of employment globally and typically account for at least half of national economies in OECD nations.

Appropriate support

This is not to say that MSMEs or environmental NGOs think the introduction of the treaty, in and of itself, will automatically ensure a just transition. Finance is a challenge in wealthy economies as well as emerging and developing markets amid current global shocks.

Indeed, a separate poll of more than 500 UK-based SMEs from Manx Financial Group this week found that one in three have had to stop or pause an area of their business because of a lack of finance since 2020. One-quarter expect their growth to stagnate in 2024.

Three-quarters of those surveyed by WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said the provision of additional finance would be key to ensuring that their businesses survive the transition and thrive. Retail, logistics and packaging distribution firms were among the most concerned.

Additionally, one-third mentioned the need for the sharing of knowledge, advice and technologies – supported by governments and/or larger businesses.

WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are advocating for those negotiating the treaty to ensure that it includes specific policy measures to support MSMEs. In the view of these NGOs:

  • Any regulations should be implemented in phases, targeting large multinational corporations first and temporarily exempting MSMEs. Expansion timeframes should be clearly indicated and additional phases should be targeted.
  • MSMEs should be supported to access recycled plastics and/or alternative raw materials.
  • Governments should keep track of the availability of alternative and recycled materials.
  • The licencing and permitting process should be streamlined for MSMEs in sustainable waste management.
  • Public-private partnerships should be established for knowledge-sharing
  • Governments should set aside R&D funding for alternative materials and recycling technologies, considering priority technology and capacity gaps
  • Governments should work with the finance sector to promote the proliferation of innovative, flexible finance instruments for MSMEs and informal waste sector workers

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global treaty manager Marta Longhurst said: “MSMEs represent 90% of businesses across the planet and are essential to the successful implementation of the treaty.

“Global rules can unlock significant benefits and opportunities for MSMEs if implemented effectively and fairly.

“This study shows strong support for the global rules in the treaty from MSMEs and highlights the crucial steps needed to support them through the process to end plastic pollution, benefiting businesses across the entire plastics value chain.”

Related feature: Navigating the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations – what should businesses focus on?

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