10 May 2018
SDG 12 Experts Focus on Food Waste, Plastic-clogged Ocean
Photo by IISD/Francis Dejon
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SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) was the subject of an expert group meeting organized by DESA in preparation for the 2018 HLPF.

Participants debated the roles of consumers, businesses and government, developed ideas for working together and applying pressure, and highlighted the need for more measurement to track waste and build economic cases for change.

4 May 2018: Experts in sustainable consumption and production (SCP) have taken stock of progress toward SDG 12 and brainstormed levers for faster change, in the lead up to the July 2018 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The two-day expert group meeting, convened by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), featured in-depth discussions on climate action, ocean action, plastic pollution in the ocean, food loss and waste, and sustainable transport as they relate to SCP.

SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) is one of the six Goals for which governments will conduct an in-depth review at the HLPF’s 2018 session. During the expert group meeting, participants recalled that SDG 12 is the “least well resourced” SDG, according to a report of the UN Secretary-General.

On SDG 12 stocktaking and HLPF preparations, Shantanu Mukherjee, DESA, said the market is “not getting it right” on the true costs of consumption and production. He highlighted the extensively interlinked nature of the SDGs and targets, and called for using empirical information to decide which interlinkages to prioritize for action, but said these choices must be context-specific.

Charles Arden-Clarke, Head of Secretariat of the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns (10YFP) at the UN Environment Programme, reported on the formation of the ‘One Planet Network,’ a multi-stakeholder network that will serve as an implementation mechanism for SDG 12. Cecilia Lopez Y Royo Di Taurisano, 10YFP Secretariat, said most activity has taken place in the area of SCP readiness, with less activity in SCP implementation. She reported a notable increase in the number of SCP policies and instruments, but said approximately half of these are voluntary, and only 11% are financial instruments.

Participants discussed the need to make an economic case for SCP at the global level, and considered whether the private sector will respond to potential efficiency gains as an incentive to improve SCP, or only regulation. One suggested the need for better branding of SCP. On SCP’s interlinkages with other issues, a government representative highlighted her country’s toolbox to allow national focal points to bring SCP to the table of negotiations in other areas.

The idea that SCP is highly interlinked with other Goals continued to emerge in the session on climate action. Annika Lindblom, Finland’s Ministry of the Environment and Secretary General of the National Commission on Sustainable Development, said SCP “directs attention to the interface of climate and poverty.” She said Finland has combined the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement on climate change in order to address material usage and energy usage together. The framework is called ‘Carbon Neutral and Resource-wise Finland,’ and includes a medium-term climate policy plan to 2030 and action plans on procurement, product innovation and support for investments.

Hannah Janetshek, German Development Institute, said that while SDG 12 can have “strong co-benefits across the entire agenda,” it could also increase competition for resources, especially as policies seek to expand access to services in order to leave no one behind.

Mathilde Bouyé, World Resource Institute (WRI), said targets from SDGs 11 and 12 are poorly reflected in the NDCs, specifically 11.6, 11.c, 12.3 and 12.c. Jocelyn Blériot, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, added that so far, the focus of a low-carbon economy has been on energy, with less emphasis on raw material extraction and production. He called for an approach beyond ‘Recycling 2.0.’ With three billion new consumers coming soon, he said we must think differently, such as shifting from selling goods to selling services.

Suggesting that “most people don’t care about the impact of what they buy,” moderator David O’Connor, WRI, suggested that businesses should force people to opt out of positive behaviors rather than require them to opt in. Blériot suggested that regulations are needed in addition to business-led action, and said a number of governments are creating circular economy road maps, including Finland and France, in which businesses must consider what will happen to a product at the end of its first useful life.

In the course of the meeting, participants identified tradeoffs between SDG-related issues that have implications for SCP. These include:

  • Energy efficiency can be improved by certain thermostats, but recycling could be a challenge given the rare pollutants they contain. Similar challenges were noted with disposal of solar panels.
  • Lego plans to begin producing blocks out of sugarcane instead of plastic, but harvesting the needed sugarcane could increase land competition.
  • Plastics are part of the packaging innovations that have reduced food waste.
  • The interests of marginalized groups could come into conflict with the creation of marine protected areas.

Given these and other trade-offs, Gerald Singh, University of British Colombia, called for choosing priorities to prepare for “sub-aspirational” SDG scenarios. Bouyé said some countries are creating incentives and compensations for vulnerable populations who may be affected by SCP implementation. For example, El Salvador and France are among those including a climate solidarity package in their NDCs.

Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa, Chair of Uganda’s National Planning Authority, reported that the HLPF is not sufficient for creating awareness of SCP, and urged involving sub-national leaders.

Edda Fernández Luiselli, Mexico’s Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources, said that in the Latin American and Caribbean region, sustainability must be promoted as a tool for competitiveness, not an environmental issue. She said that in LAC, the SDG implementors must be small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which represent 80% of GDP.

Alexandra Hiniker, NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, reported on efforts to link the existing ‘OneNYC’ plan with the SDGs, noting that after Hurricane Sandy, the City realized that prevention and protection must be equitable. She gave examples of New York’s waste management policies, such as ‘zero waste by 2030’, which includes bringing recycling to public housing and making public schools zero waste. She announced that New York City will present the first-ever ‘Voluntary Local Review’ at the 2018 session of the HLPF, and said it will map city-level efforts against the SDGs to enable discussions and exchanges with other cities and countries about best practices and filling gaps.

During the sessions on SCP and ocean action and plastic pollution in the ocean, Arthur Andambi, Permanent Mission of Kenya, said Kenya banned plastic bags in 2017. He announced that Kenya will host a blue economy conference from 26-28 November 2018, and noted that Kenya has proposed to host, along with Portugal, a second UN Ocean Conference in 2020.

Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder, A Plastic Planet, said the use of plastic for food and drink packaging represents a momentary use with consequences that last forever, and recommended that governments take action on this. Another participant noted that plastics play a key role in packaging innovations that reduce food waste.

Participants developed ideas for bringing together communities of practice around targets that are closely linked. Arden-Clarke suggested creating a working group on value chains, which could cover both food and plastics. He noted that the upcoming session of the Trade for Sustainable Development Forum will meet on the theme of sustainable value chains for SDG 12, and suggested that a working group on value chains could take advantage both of this event and the subsequent blue economy conference in Kenya.

Several presentations informed participants of the current status of plastic pollution in the ocean and efforts to address it. Speakers noted that plastic production is expected to double or triple within ten years, while the volume of additives in plastic and products’ complexity make recycling a limited solution. Participants observed that many consumers know about the problem, with one suggesting addressing the dynamic between consumer and retailer in order to “beat the speed of regulation.”

Recent actions taken to reduce plastic, as reported by the experts, include:

  • In the Maldives, schools have eliminated single-use plastics as of April 2018;
  • In the Netherlands, an affordable grocery store opened a plastic-free aisle;
  • The UK recently announced the Clean Oceans Alliance to reduce plastic waste in Commonwealth states;
  • In Switzerland, major supermarkets placed a five-cent fee for plastic bags, reducing demand by 80%.

Additional ideas were brainstormed, including:

  • Use extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies with regard to plastic packaging, as well as industrial fishing and the loss of gear;
  • Work with mineral water bottling companies to shift to other types of bottles, and hold a conference with the five largest bottled water companies in the world to secure commitments on going plastic-free;
  • Create legislation covering supermarkets’ responsibility, especially as some have said, “we would love to be legislated into” reducing plastic; and
  • Use blockchain technology to track ships, fishing nets and other aspects of fishing supply chains and manufacturing.

One participant said demand is only part of the solution, and legislation is required when producers and packagers are not ready to come to the table. A government representative said that despite regulations and laws, the petroleum industry can perpetuate a bad situation in a country through lobbying and investments.

On food loss and waste, experts including James Lomax, UN Environment, and Harry de Gorter, Cornell University, US, explained that in food and agriculture, unlike other areas of SCP, efficiency is not the problem. Calories are produced very cheaply already, which leads to consumption of the wrong food – non-diverse, high-calorie, and corn-based – in turn creating an obesity crisis. Moreover, when food is wasted, the water, energy and wildlife habitat used in creating the food are also wasted. However, decreasing production and consumption will increase prices. Redistribution of surplus is not the solution, Lomax stressed, and will only entrench the system of waste.

Participants stressed the need for consumer campaigns and public outreach, such as conducting food waste audits in schools. They also noted the importance of measurement and monitoring, such as through the food waste index led by UNEP and partners, and through initiatives to separate food waste from the waste stream.

On whether there is a business case to be made for reducing food waste, one participant said the westernization of diets is driving the crisis, and it is difficult to make a business case to address that. However, Richard Swannell, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), said businesses can experience a favorable rate of return on reducing food loss and waste in under two years, and companies that measure how much is wasted through the entire process of producing the food in the first place realize the need to reduce waste.

Regarding SDG 12’s status as the least funded SDG, participants suggesting linking food waste to other issues, highlighting that it is difficult to mobilize funding for what is perceived as a first-world problem. They also called for more measurement of gains from reducing food loss and waste, which will lead governments to invest. [Programme] [Background notes, participant list, and statements] [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]

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