We’re not ready to organize a plastic-free COP

Different environmental organizations report in their campaigns the pollution of the oceans and, at the same time, place plastic waste as one of the main problems of the present. Therefore, a lot is expected from the United Nations Climate Summit, an event organized to stop climate change. What other international meeting, if not the COP, could be a reference of creative solutions for the organization of a sustainable event?

In accordance with the latest Greenpeace report, in the case of single-use plastics, the only sustainable solution is to get rid of them. In fact, a large part of this waste ends up in the oceans, damaging the marine ecosystem and polluting beaches. Next year, its production is expected to reach 500 million tonnes, 900% more than in 1980. Aware of this, the organizers of the COP have taken actions: a refillable glass bottle was given to all participants and water dispensers were distributed throughout the venue. Furthermore, in line with the COP25 Sustainability Policy, the catering of every panel or side-event prioritizes reusable cutlery or those made of compostable materials. During the first days of the event, it is indeed easy to observe the effort to meet this objective: gradually, plastic cutlery is removed from the cafeteria in the Green Zone and Burger King’s sauce packages are substituted by dispensers. Also, as a waitress at one of IFEMA’s cafeterias reports, the typical soda cans had to be replaced by glass bottles.

Despite all the measures that have been taken, it is not difficult to find plastic lids in cafeterias and in addition the plastic packaging of the Deli&Cia chain stands out. On the bins the words “100% recyclable” can be read. All over the COP, the organizers work to encourage participants to dispose waste correctly. The informative posters show images of 100% compostable packaging, which, unlike conventional plastics, are absent. This is not surprising since compostable plastic does not exist yet. A study from Plymouth University states that the complete deterioration of these materials has not been proven and Greenpeace warns that they represent an incentive for multinationals to continue using disposable plastics, offered as a sustainable alternative.

“It’s excellent to see efforts to reduce plastic at COP25, but still, you see a lot of plastic in cafeterias; in addition, there is a growing problem with substitutes such as paper cups, which are chemically treated and therefore not recyclable”, says Grazyna Pulawska, senior project manager at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). In fact, paper cups are omnipresent at COP25: they can be find both at water dispensers and places that provide free coffee to wake up exhausted summit participants. “We are not ready to organize a plastic-free COP,” Pulawska adds.

The Asia-Europe Foundation is one of the few that organizes events to address this problem. In two weeks of conversations and negotiations there are only three events explicitly dedicated to the use of plastic. One of them is the round table on the ’3R’ strategy – reduce, recycle, reuse – in Europe and Asia, continents where the complexity of the issue is increasingly emerging. During the event, issues such as plastic packaging required by transnational trade, the large investments in recycling systems that then necessitate a constant flow of plastic for its amortization, and the millions of tonnes of rubbish shipped from Europe to Asia where it is not properly recycled, as it is in Europe, are discussed. In Spain, the percentage of recycled packaging varies between 25% and 80%, depending on the source. The latter poses two more challenges: what happens to our waste is not at all transparent and the fact that the problem is not solved only though a correct waste management.

“The solution has to be multidimensional,” explains Dr. Lewis Akenji, executive director of the NGO Seed and speaker at the 3R strategies panel, “We have a long way to go, and we’re only beginning to understand the complexity of the issue”.
Meanwhile, at the Cumbre Social por el Clima (Social Summit for the Climate) organized at the Complutense University of Madrid by different environmental groups, 100% vegan food is offered and served on porcelain plates with metal cutlery. All products, which are locally-sourced, are delivered in wooden boxes, as explains Hannah Gómez, from the El Ambigú collective, who is in charge of the catering together with the Swiss organisation KochKollektiv. Hygiene regulations almost imposed them the use of single-use cutlery, tells Francisco del Pozo Campos, an active member of the Social Summit and part of the logistics team, but in the end, they got the permission to use the professional dishwasher in the University canteen. In this way they managed to organize an event free of disposable plastics: only in four weeks and without sponsors.

Is this the solution to the problem of plastics? No, it is not the solution because single-use plastic related to food consumption is only one piece of the puzzle. However, it is a starting-point that gives visibility to the issue and that is also in our hands.

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