Plastic promises and the crisis of corporate accountability

The top 10 plastic polluters that we analysed have a joint plastic footprint of almost 10 million tonnes a year - the equivalent of 30-times the weight of the Empire State Building. Last week we sent them open letters asking them to publicly support legislation and finally take meaningful action to tackle the plastic crisis they are complicit in creating.

Plastic promises and the crisis of corporate accountability

In September, the Changing Markets Foundation published a report Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, in which we exposed the reality of failed commitments by consumer goods companies to address the plastic problem and their history of lobbying against proven legislative solutions.

Rarely in the history of environmental problems has any issue generated such outrage, awareness and calls for change as plastic pollution. Consumer goods companies are well aware of the huge reputational damage that comes with their products regularly ending up as litter, and their response has been to publish a series of impressive-sounding voluntary commitments and to form a wide-range of industry-backed alliances to appear as if they are working on solutions. But behind the scenes, the plastic industry plans to double the production of plastic by 2050 and keeps on lobbying against ambitious legislation. At the same time, plastic waste keeps on ending up in the environment at the rate of one garbage truck per minute with disastrous consequences for biodiversity, climate change and human health. 

Recycling promises

Amongst the most prominently promoted solutions is recycling. Companies pinning their hopes on recycling is not new. Historically, the industry has promoted recycling as a solution since the 1970s and successfully shifted the responsibility for it onto consumers. But only 9% of all the plastic produced so far has ever been recycled. In spite of this, little has changed in the corporate narrative about the plastic problem. Over the last few years, over 450 organisations have signed up to targets under the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy. Many of the companies we investigated have committed to make all their packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, but without clear pathways on how they are going to achieve this. Some companies, like Mars Incorporated and Mondelēz International are taking a gamble on chemical recycling, which we believe is a false solution to the plastic crisis and is unlikely to be commercially viable at scale within those timeframes. 

Broken commitments and lobbying

Our report reveals the true extent of corporate double-speak on plastic pollution. When we analysed the commitments of Coca-Cola, we reported a 30-year history of broken promises and unravelled how the company is still lobbying against legislation for deposit return systems (DRS) around the world. Even in the European Union, where the company seemingly supports “well-designed DRS”, it is still a member of organisations that we have exposed as leading the lobby against the implementation of such systems at the national level. Ironically, these organisations (for example, Ecoembes in Spain or EKO-KOM in the Czech Republic) were originally set up to deal with packaging waste through extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and are often perceived as independent recycling organisations. The reality is far darker with them in fact reportedly financially benefitting from more plastic being put on the market.

In our letters, we are asking Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Danone and other companies that now supposedly support “well-designed” DRS in Europe to publicly distance themselves from the organisations that lobby against them. We are also calling on them to support such systems globally, in all markets in which they operate and not just in the EU, where policy-makers have already made the first move. Our research shows DRS is a proven solution to the plastic crisis, which results in very high collection rates (over 90%), reducing marine litter and providing clean streams of recyclables that can be turned back into plastic bottles or, even better, can be reused numerous times. 

Other tactics

Talking Trash also delves into the toolbox of other tactics used by the plastic industry, consumer goods and retailers to stave off mandatory, legislative solutions to the plastic crisis. Some, such as the millions of marketing dollars spent by consumer brands to present themselves as eco-friendly, are a subtle war of attrition. Others are sneakier – like setting up fake environmental groups, withholding or manipulating data, and even co-opting the Covid-19 crisis in the case of the plastics industry pushing back on bans on single-use plastics and delaying other legislation. 

Many of the tactics, in our view, are mere distractions from the solutions that are proven to work. Take for example the fleet of plastic ‘Interceptors’ dreamed up by teenage inventor, Boyan Slat; or the various companies creating furniture (Next Wave), packaging (P&G) or clothes (Adidas) from marine plastics. Not only are projects like this akin to mopping water from the floor when the bathtub is overflowing, rather than turning off the tap, but we think they actively syphon attention and funding away from solutions that are proven to work, and weaken calls for regulation by making people think market-based solutions will fix the problem.

Legislation is key, because it brings accountability, which voluntary initiatives do not. It was not just Coca-Cola that we found to have broken its commitments. The same story is repeated with Nestlé, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble and others. Given that the plastic pollution crisis is so serious and is so intrinsically linked to climate change, biodiversity loss and human health, we cannot trust corporations whose bottom lines depend on the availability of cheap disposable plastic packaging to do the right thing. While we are hoping that our report and letters lead to responses and a rethink of corporate policies, we are not holding our breath that corporates will solve the plastic pollution crisis on their own. Policy-makers must enact ambitious mandatory measures to address this crisis. 

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director, Changing Markets Foundation

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the individual author/contributor, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of edie and its employees.

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