Why many plastic promises are just greenwashing

At this point, there’s no denying that plastic pollution is ubiquitous. It appears in the remote corners of the Earth, the food chain, and even human bodies. To protect human and environmental health, global plastic pollution must be addressed.

With increasing public concern about climate change, companies might face higher expectations regarding corporate responsibility, especially those known to cause significant environmental impacts. 

In a recent One Earth study, the authors looked into the commitments made by the world’s largest companies between 2015 to 2020 to reduce plastic pollution. Based on the study, about 72 percent of the world’s largest companies have made some form of commitment to reducing plastic pollution, which ranges from one line of text to many pages of commitment. 

Although some companies have made commitments in recent years to reduce their plastic footprint, the work doesn’t end there—it’s necessary to analyze how effective they are at reducing plastic pollution. 

Corporate commitments have a limited impact on global plastic pollution

There’s no penalty for not fulfilling a non-binding commitment, especially when it comes from the company itself. It’s important to validate whether or not companies are doing what they actually promise to do, says Shelie Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan.

Companies’ commitments frequently involve waste reduction strategies, like increasing recycled or recyclable content in packaging and advancing recycling-related efforts, notably paying less attention to how virgin plastic production can be reduced. For example, Nestlé Waters North America—now known as BlueTriton Brands—made a goal in 2008 to double the recycling rates for PET plastic, the kind of plastic used for water bottles, to 60 percent. However, the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) reported in 2018 that the average recycling rate of PET bottles hasn’t changed that much over the past decade.

Based on current trends, efforts to improve waste management may be overshadowed by the production and consumption of virgin plastic. Annual virgin plastic production is estimated to increase to 1.1 billion tonnes in 2050. By that time, the petrochemicals used to produce virgin plastic polymers may very well account for nearly half of the growth in oil demand, surpassing trucks, aviation, and shipping.

“We found limited evidence to suggest that corporate commitments are actually reducing the amount of global plastic pollution,” says Zoie Diana, a PhD candidate in the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University and author of the recent One Earth study. “Unfortunately, we found reports of companies lightweighting plastic.”

Lightweighting is a practice where companies slightly reduce the volume of plastic in their packaging, like making thinner PET bottles or shorter bottle caps, which you’ve probably already noticed in your local grocery store. While it’s good that companies produce lighter and smaller plastic products, if they reinvest their savings into markets that involve new plastic products, they might only increase the total mass of plastic produced, says Diana.

Companies usually strive to increase their sales, so even if less plastic is used per package, the number of packaging units is likely to increase. For instance, products like shampoo or coffee are often sold in tiny packets or sachets, which use more packaging material compared to larger product sizes. In addition, reducing the weight of plastic packaging doesn’t make the product any less likely to become trash.

[Related: A close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch reveals a common culprit.]

Sometimes, consumers are misled by products that aren’t as green as they seem. Bioplastics, produced wholly or in part from renewable biomass sources, are considered the more environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics. However, they can still contribute to plastic pollution, global warming, and land use because not all bioplastics are the same and they aren’t always biodegradable.

While some bioplastics like those derived from cornstarch decompose in the soil, others only break down at high temperatures or after being treated in a landfill under very specific conditions. Even biodegradable bioplastics can still end up in landfills and produce methane gas as they decompose. Bioplastics made from crops also use up land that could have been used for growing food. It’s important to remember that bioplastics are still just plastics, even if they are made from a different material.

Boxed water products, often touted as an eco-friendly alternative to bottled water due to the paper-based carton packaging, also appear to be better for the environment than they really are. In reality, the cartons aren’t made entirely from paper because they require plastic film and aluminum to waterproof the paper and seal the content. Moreover, they’re not necessarily easier to recycle. Only 60 percent of households in the country have access to carton recycling, whereas 87 percent of the U.S. population has access to a municipal collection of PET bottles.

Companies must reduce plastic production and overall consumption

Although recycling is an important step aimed at reducing plastic pollution, it’s not that effective. A 2017 Science Advances study reported that only nine percent of the plastic ever created had been recycled. Aside from the 12 percent of plastics that were incinerated, this means that all the plastics that were produced remain in landfills or the natural environment, continuing to pollute the planet. Even if recycling efforts were improved, they might be unlikely to keep pace with the growing rate of plastic consumption.

“We suspect that, at best, the emphasis on recycling found in this study reflects industry efforts to raise global recycling rates and, at worst, reflects industry attempts to shift responsibility toward consumers, greenwashing, and potential pre-emption of legislation aimed at reducing plastic pollution,” says Diana.

A number of companies recently explored creative ways to minimize their plastic use. In 2018, brewing company Carlsberg introduced its Snap Pack to dramatically cut plastic waste. They did away with plastic rings by bonding a six-pack of beer cans together with glue instead. When all of their four-, six-, and eight-pack beers globally have been converted to use this innovation, it would save about 1323 tons of plastic annually, the equivalent of around 60 million plastic bags. Meanwhile, Walmart Canada eliminated plastic wraps of organic banana bunches and single peppers in 2019, preventing almost 94,000 kilograms of plastic waste. 

Commitments like lightweighting and more recycling only divert attention from preventive measures that reduce virgin plastic production. The tap on unnecessary plastic production must be turned off, but only three percent of the top 300 companies on the Fortune Global 500 explicitly targeted virgin or newly produced plastics, says Diana. Unilever has a current pledge to halve the amount of virgin plastic they use in their packaging by 2025.

“Many companies focus on making packaging more recyclable or increasing the recycled content in their products,” says Miller. “While these efforts are an improvement over the status quo, they do not fully eliminate the environmental impacts of plastic.”

[Related: Dozens of companies with ‘net-zero’ goals just got called out for greenwashing.]

According to PepsiCo, 87 percent of its packaging is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable. The multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation hopes to reach 100 percent by 2025. However, Miller notes that improving the ability of packaging to be recycled doesn’t necessarily ensure that it will actually be recycled in practice. Furthermore, a recyclable plastic that escapes waste streams and ends up in the environment can cause just as much ecological damage as a non-recyclable one, she adds.

The environmental impact of plastic pollution can only be partially addressed through improved packaging and recycling efforts because plastics don’t just cause harm when they are discarded. Starting from their production, they already contribute emissions that occur through natural gas extraction and plastic manufacturing. In the United States alone, fossil fuel extraction and production associated with plastic manufacturing contributed at least 9.5 to 10.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents back in 2015. Therefore, reducing plastic production and consumption remains to be a critical part of addressing plastic pollution.

“We tend to focus on visible impacts such as solid waste generation, but there are also upstream environmental impacts that are usually invisible to us,” says Miller. “The best way to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic is to reduce overall consumption. Reducing the amount of stuff that we consume is key to reducing environmental impact, not just making it easier to recycle.”

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