Some corporations will say just about anything to make you love them.
Amid growing furor over plastic pollution in the oceans, the top producers of plastic waste have pledged to make more of their products recyclable. In a sense, these companies are fashioning themselves into warriors against the very problem they helped create. Their efforts might seem noble, but they’re mostly smoke and mirrors.
Experts say the best way to tackle the world’s plastic problem is to cut way back on the creation of plastics. In reality, however, virgin plastic production is hardly slowing down. Quite the opposite. It’s booming.
By one estimate, new plastic production is expected to increase by some 40 percent over the next decade. In the U.S., about $180 billion has been invested in new petrochemical plants for plastic manufacturing. A new report from the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, foresees rising demand for virgin plastics sustaining the global oil and gas sector to 2050, offsetting a projected slowdown in demand for transport fuels.
Meanwhile, more than 4 million tons of plastic debris pour into marine ecosystems every year. It’s estimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic garbage than fish in the oceans. Much of this will be single-use packaging.
“The only way we solve the problem is if we reduce the use of plastic in the first place, and single-use consumer goods packaging is really the place where we need to do that,” says Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental nonprofit Oceana.
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle ― top purveyors of single-use plastic items that end up as marine debris ― pledged this summer to make their packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Sounds good, right? Not when you consider that only 9 percent of plastics are recycled. Plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, the kind Coke and Pepsi drinks come in, are among the most-recycled plastic items, and yet just under 30 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled in the U.S. in 2015.
There’s a chronic need for better collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure and processes. Compostable plastics require industrial composting facilities ― something that simply does not exist at that scale.
Businesses that make single-use items need to think about what happens to their products when they’ve reached the end of their lives, said Dune Ives, the head of the environmental nonprofit Lonely Whale Foundation.
“If there is no end-of-life process, who is responsible for creating it?” she asked.
To that end, some companies are attempting to close the loop on plastic. That means trying to reclaim as much end-of-life plastic as possible and incorporate it into new products. In theory, the recycled plastic would then displace virgin plastic. Despite eager buy-in from big corporations, none have pledged to reduce virgin plastic by a specific amount.
The investment group Closed Loop Fund, for example, partners with companies like Coke, Pepsi, Nestle and consumer goods giant Unilever to invest in recycling processes and infrastructure in the U.S. In October the venture started a spin-off called Circulate Capital to invest in waste management infrastructure in Asia.
A representative for Nestle said the company does not have specific targets for reducing virgin plastic usage. Coke, Pepsi and Unilever did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication.
October also saw the creation of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an international agreement signed by over 290 corporations that collectively produce some 20 percent of the world’s plastic packaging. The agreement, which set goals for companies to recycle more and invest in closed-loop processes, has been criticized for being vague and allowing signatories to sidestep the issue of new plastic production.
A separate effort led by Lonely Whale aims to build infrastructure and establish recycling processes that divert plastics from the ocean. This NextWave initiative — which began in December 2017 and today includes Dell, HP and Ikea — captures discarded plastics that escaped proper waste disposal and uses them in new products. The effort does not create single-use items; instead, it results in products like furniture and computer accessories, which keep the plastic in use for longer and are a better match for plastic’s durability.
Dell and HP have sourced single-use plastic bottles from Haitian beaches since early 2017. HP has diverted some 250 tons of ocean-bound plastic to date, according to sustainability lead Ellen Jackowski. Humanscale, an office furniture company participating in NextWave, plans to incorporate some two pounds of recycled plastic in every new chair, said Ives. It will use plastic materials salvaged from discarded fishing nets hauled in off the coast of Chile in partnership with another NextWave company, Bureo.
The coalition of nine NextWave companies thinks it can divert 25,000 tons of plastic from entering the oceans by 2025. That will barely make a dent in the problem of ocean plastics, but Ives said she hopes the network will have a bigger impact if it can expand to other sectors and partners.
However, if corporations don’t take responsibility for their products after their useful life, items made from reclaimed plastics could end up right back in the oceans.
At least one of the NextWave partners is trying to tackle this concern. HP, for instance, makes printer ink cartridges have been designed for recycling, and there are concrete ways to recover the cartridges, said Ives. Spent cartridges go through a disassembly process at HP, in which the metals are removed and the plastic shells are shredded. Then the materials, along with ocean-bound plastics, are used to make new cartridges. Consumers can mail the cartridges back to HP or drop them off at Walmart, Staples or Best Buy outlets. It’s a start.
Ultimately, however, recycling initiatives are moot without reducing the amount of plastic produced. “We need to start moving towards plastic for absolutely necessary purposes,” said Savitz. “Not for single-use, not for things that we use for 10 minutes and throw away.”
“As long as we’re pumping it out as fast as we are,” she said, “cleanup and recycling will never be enough.”
For starters, major corporations could make a bigger difference by getting rid of single-use plastic items from their operations, according to Savitz. “Large companies are very well positioned to have an impact,” she said. For example, instead of stocking offices and factories with bottles of soda, the companies could install soda fountains, she said.
Dell has eliminated single-use plastics from all its events and straws from its operations. Ikea is on track to phase out single-use plastic items from its stores and restaurants by 2020. It is also planning to eliminate all virgin plastics originating from fossil fuels from its products by 2030 — one of the most significant commitments from corporations toward reducing plastic use, said Ives.
“The virgin fossil-based plastic is where I think we definitely need to phase out,” said Lena Pripp-Kovac, Ikea’s sustainability manager. “It’s sourced the wrong way. It has a climate impact. It has many problems from an environmental point of view.”
Pressure needs to be kept up until virgin plastic production is slowed way down, said Savitz. Over 300 million metric tons of new plastic are produced every year, and that number is set to climb.
“I don’t want to have anybody think that this problem is solved,” she said. “Coca-Cola and Pepsi are still pumping out plastic bottles like there’s no tomorrow.”
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.