How businesses can address non-recyclable plastic pollution
  • Companies have a major impact on the environment and should actively take part in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Investing in SDGs should be a top priority of companies to mitigate their direct and indirect impact on the world.
  • In today’s environmental reality, companies must address their environmental footprint and help solve environmental injustice towards nature and society.

As we better understand the impact of business, both on the environment and communities, companies are called to take appropriate action for their direct and indirect impact on the planet.

Large companies are hugely responsible for the rapid rate of plastic consumption and waste generation. They may also provide the solution for cleaning up the environment, and simultaneously, exacting social justice.

True corporate social responsibility requires action beyond appearances. Companies must reflect on everything from their supply chain and raw material sourcing to how their products are being disposed of. This requires constant attention and massive changes to current practices.

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

How much of an impact do companies actually have?

Although sustainability experts agree that all stakeholders must take responsibility for their role in climate change and social issues, companies have the greatest impact on the environment, and so they bear the greatest responsibility.

Plastic pollution leaks into oceans mostly because of poor waste management and lack of recycling capabilities. It is also due to market structures and selective responsibility.

Recycled materials are becoming a standard requirement in many industries, with some companies declaring ambitious goals of 50-100% recycled material for all their products. While informal waste pickers collect high-value recyclable materials such as PET plastic bottles, the non-recyclable low-value plastic from the same source isn’t being collected. This continues to pollute the oceans and impact coastal communities. The lack of value due to market demand, creates a bigger problem with no one taking responsibility – this is often called ‘orphan plastic’.

Given their market influence, companies who choose to focus only on supporting the collection and recycling of value plastics, are creating an imbalance in the system. Meanwhile, low-value (mostly single-use) post-consumer plastic waste is left unrecycled. This leads to massive environmental problems for vulnerable communities where waste management is almost non-existent. Unfortunately, while recyclable plastic bottles are collected, plastic bags, Styrofoam, fishing nets, garments and shoes are left behind.

Carbon Majors found that just 100 energy companies are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While this highlights only one industry, many other industries contribute to the climate issue. We must also look beyond a company’s direct social and environmental impact. When we examine the environmental footprint of a single product, we must consider its impact throughout its entire life, from extraction to disposal. Doing so will lead to a realization that a single company has much larger impact than we believed before.

Those who have the most power to effect change can do so in an ethical way. It’s not just the morally right thing to do, it’s also essential to a company’s growth and future success. One way in which companies can act ethically is through corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia: Alongside every plastic bottle one finds non-recyclable plastic

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia: Alongside every plastic bottle one finds non-recyclable plastic

Image: TONTOTON

How corporate social responsibility makes a difference

Society’s expectations of companies have changed in recent years. CSR is when a company goes beyond its policies and operating practices, on a voluntary basis, to take responsibility for their impact. A sound CSR program will ensure an environmental footprint that is as small as possible. It also ensures the ethical treatment of all people it affects.

Often inspired by the SDGs Impact Enterprise Actions, a company must understand the current and future effects of its work, integrate goals into their purpose, and align operations for optimal impact. Ensuring proper monitoring and evaluation is a vital part of assessing the degree of impact of CSR projects. All-in-all these actions must be founded on a company’s vision to do good.

CSR makes companies more competitive, showing that they care about workers. A study about the millennial workforce showed that 64% of millennials won’t take a job if the company doesn’t showcase corporate responsibility. Eighty-three percent said they would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. CSR strategies are, therefore, essential to have a competitive workforce. So too, CSR shows customers that companies care, which ultimately will cultivate a loyal customer base.

CSR can have a huge positive impact on the environment and the people who are affected by their actions. TOMS is a great example of not only committing itself to CSR strategies but adjusting their strategies if an initial approach proves to be problematic. Originally, they donated a pair of shoes for every pair of shoes sold. This resulted in over 100 million donated shoes. However, when they received criticism from NGOs for this well-meaning CSR strategy, they pivoted to donate a portion of their profits to grassroots campaigns instead. Social and environmental standards change as we better understand our impact. Companies must decide the best ways to implement CSR strategies within their business models.

The flexible nature of CSR doesn’t mean that there are no incorrect strategies. Successful CSR models must stay up to date with current social and environmental policies. They must keep all stakeholders in mind. They should regularly audit supply chains and bring about real actions if flaws are identified.

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

How TONTOTON’S plastic credit system helps companies take sustainable action

Plastic production and waste generation are major concerns for big producers. CSR or sustainability strategies must take into account social and environmental impacts from every step of a product’s life. This includes how the waste surrounding the product is managed.

Orphan-plastic is a major source of pollution. Not only is it unrecyclable, but it also often ends up in poorly managed landfills, is burnt, or abandoned in nature. This could lead to leakages of toxins that are dangerous to both humans and wildlife.

TONTOTON’s certified plastic credit system allows companies to take responsibility of the orphan plastics surrounding their products. While companies increase the amount of recycled plastic into their products, they can also take care of the non-recyclable plastics. Once the plastic is collected, we send the waste to be co-processed at cement factories. Using this process, the plastic is converted into energy and raw materials. So far, ours is the cleanest and safest method to get rid of harmful plastic waste in huge quantities.

The projects that are funded through our certified plastic credit system benefit both the environment and communities in which we work. We’ve monetized orphan plastic, providing additional income to those who work with us while cleaning areas that are most vulnerable to mismanaged plastic waste. Our community waste pickers are trained, have personal protective equipment, access to healthcare, and competitive wages.

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