Report: Big-name brands failing to address plastic pollution crisis, despite improved pledges
A survey of 50 of the largest consumer-facing goods firms, including PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg, has found that companies are generally failing to take ambitious action on plastic pollution, despite lofty pledges to do so.
Conducted by nonprofit As You Sow, the study analysed the plastics pledges and actions of the businesses across six key areas: product design; reusable packaging; recycled content; packaging data transparency; supporting recycling and producer responsibility. In each of these topics, each business was given a grade, and these grades were then averaged out to provide an overall company score.
Unilever received the highest overall company grade of the cohort, a B-. Last year, Unilever announced it would halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025 by reducing plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes, increasing the amount of recycled plastics it uses and collecting and processing more plastic packaging than it sells. Unilever’s broader Five Point Plastics Plan’, launched as a follow up to its previous three-pronged approach, is centred around reducing plastic; switching to recyclable materials and recycled content; seeking alternatives to plastics and working in collaboration with partners across the value chain.
Nonetheless, As You Sow said it would not describe Unilever as a “leadership company”.
At the other end of the rankings, 15 firms scored an overall ‘F’ grade, including Papa John’s, Domino’s Pizza, Tyson Foods and Whole Foods. A further 22 firms scored a ‘D’ grade overall, including Kraft Heinz, Kimberly-Clark, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Heineken, Mondelez International, Burger King and Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Many of these brands are members of collaborative initiatives to reduce plastic pollution, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Commitment.
When looking at focus areas as opposed to individual companies, As You Sow found the strongest progress in packaging design and recycled content. Companies have faced increasing pressure to act on these issues in recent years, the report notes, from investors, consumers and changing legislation alike – with those repeatedly called out by activists making the fastest progress. Of the 50 businesses, 21 have made public commitments to redesign packaging.
But most of the companies are still lagging in establishing reusable or refillable packaging models, with none of the cohort having set time-bound, numerical targets for the transition away from single-use. Only two firms – Nestle Waters and Coca-Cola – generated 15% or more of their revenue from reusable models. As You Sow noted that this trend could be set to change due to the advent of TerraCycle’s multi-brand Loop platform, but concluded that more ambition from individual firms would be needed.
The cohort analysed was also lagging on producer responsibility, with 46 either lobbying against, or failing to lobby for, extended producer responsibility (EPR) programmes in the US. In this area, 41 of the 50 firms received an ‘F’ grade’
As You Sow concluded that it is imperative for these companies to increase ambition and action now, to prevent virgin plastic production increasing sharply through to 2050. Research by WWF last year concluded that the amount of plastics produced, littered and incinerated globally is set to rise “dramatically” by 2030, despite recent action by businesses.
The NGO also sees wellbeing, economic and climate benefits from strong action on plastics, through reduced pollution of nature, more jobs in the recycling sector and lower emissions from mitigated or recycled materials respectively. On the latter, the report cites research revealing that greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics sector could eat into 13% of the Earth’s entire remaining carbon budget by 2050.
“Companies have an absolute responsibility to reduce plastic pollution,” As You Sow’s senior vice president Conrad MacKerron said. “But there is a massive amount of work to be done.”
A way forward
In a bid to change the trends it reveals, the As You Sow report contains a string of recommended actions for businesses in each of the six key areas.
It states that companies should view 100% recyclability, reuse or composting goals as a “first step” rather than an end-point of plastics action, given systematic challenges to recycling infrastructure and the overarching need to produce less virgin material in the first instance. Such targets should be complemented by investment in refill, recycled content sourcing and reducing the total amount of packaging, as well as engagement with finance and policy to upscale and join up recycling and composting systems.
On refill specifically, the report calls for companies to set time-bound, numerical commitments to generate an increasing amount or proportion of revenue from zero-waste models, and to ensure that refill models are brought to scale rapidly through collaboration and finance.
As for producer responsibility and supporting recycling, the report states that current levels of funding amount to just 7% of what is necessary, meaning that businesses must “step up ways to directly support or otherwise bring much-needed capital and sustainable financing to collection and processing systems”. Better engagement is also required with the waste sector and with local authorities, particularly from on-the-go food and beverage brands
As You Sow also suggests that changes to policy are needed. For example, none of the companies analysed have received government penalties for failing to meet recycled content goals. Moreover, no US states currently have EPR frameworks for plastics packaging producers, despite promising moves in California. The US Government is currently proposing a new Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act.