Paradise lost: we must be bold to save the planet


Human activity has put the world “on notice” according to a ground-breaking UN report. TOMRA CEO Stefan Ranstrand explores the factors threatening one million species with extinction and argues that bold, widespread action is the only solution.

UNESCO’s director general Audrey Azoulay put it bluntly when she said that the world is “on notice” and the findings of the global assessment report she launched show she wasn’t exaggerating.

One in four species – a total of nearly one million – are at risk of extinction within decades. Marine pollution has increased tenfold since 1980. And crop security and long-term food production are at risk from a biosphere “declining faster than at any time in human history.”

This is a truly ground-breaking report compiled over three years to bring together findings from 15,000 reference materials and 400 experts across 50 countries.

We now know the main causes of this unprecedented biodiversity change over the past 50 years, but the question is: what will we do about it?

On land and at sea

Surprisingly the largest factor behind this environmental collapse isn’t climate change or pollution, but changes in land and sea use.

To feed our rapidly growing planet we are replacing grassland and forests with intensive crops, especially in the tropics. According to the report, at least 50 percent of the increase in agriculture since 1980 has been to the detriment of forests.

What makes this harder to accept is that we already know that a third of food produced globally is wasted every year. What we are facing is huge inefficiencies in the way we grow and use food.

With global populations set to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, we will need 70 percent more food. So, we must adopt new agricultural techniques and change attitudes to food production to reverse this biodiversity crisis.

While animals and plants are being squeezed on land, marine life suffers a worse fate. Pollution in the seas has increased tenfold since 1980 and by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

The root causes of ocean plastic pollution aren’t in the seas but on land, where we have poor waste management processes, limited and inefficient recycling infrastructures and bad consumer behaviour. Countries such as Germany have already implemented state-of-the-art recycling systems, where the recycling rate of plastic bottles is 98 percent, and in other markets container deposit schemes have increased recycling rates by more than 50-60 percent within one to two years.

It is easy to ignore the issues and pretend everything can continue as it has for the past 50 years, but the window of time to reverse the damage done is getting shorter every day and every minute that passes. So, what are we going to do? We need a resource revolution.

Brave new world

Everything we do must change to become more sustainable – what the UN report calls “transformative change”. Some more successful areas like recycling of paper and metal need evolution. But when it comes to woefully mismanaged resources like plastic and food, we need revolution.

In agriculture, highly sophisticated technology can meet both the needs of nature and demands of consumers. Farming is now a science, not an art. Big data and predictive analysis are driving the agritech revolution, meaning that crops can be grown and harvested more efficiently.

The biggest transformation comes further up the supply chain. Sensor-based sorting technology is giving food producers access to more data than ever, allowing the supply chain to eliminate vast amounts of food waste. This reduces pressure on land use, ensuring we always use what we grow and we only grow what we need.

Combined, these technologies can unlock huge potential in every local farm and have a global impact.

In the seas, we can reverse the trend of millions of tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year. Again, the solution here comes further up the waste supply chain – and already the sector is transforming towards a circular economy.

We have shown that there is value in waste. Reverse vending technology drives remarkable recycling rates of up to 98 percent, helping consumers reimagine waste and collecting 40 billion used beverage containers a year which may otherwise end up in the ocean. Sensor-based sorting technology is optimising waste streams and maximising yields. We are also helping global brands rethink their products, making new products out of 100 percent recycled materials.

Paradise regained

We can be positive about the future. But we must be bolder, braver on how we manage our waste and cultivate our land. It will take a seismic shift in attitudes and serious innovation.

None of us has all the answers, but each and every company, country and consumer must make their own contribution, however large or small, and I hope you will join me in doing the right thing for our future.