Corporate pledges to address plastic pollution aren’t reducing plastic production

As public expectations for corporate responsibility grow and an increasing number of businesses pledge to reduce plastic use, researchers publishing in the journal One Earth on November 18 detail how the world’s largest and most powerful companies’ focus on recycling rather than virgin plastic reduction makes their commitments less meaningful.

The study focused on the top 300 Fortune 500 companies and found that 72% had made a commitment to reducing plastic pollution. “Most of the commitments emphasize plastic recycling and commonly target general plastics,” write the authors, led by Zoie Taylor Diana, an environmental researcher at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. “They are important, but partial, solutions if we are to comprehensively address the plastic pollution problem.”

Much of what you’ve heard about plastic pollution may be wrong. Instead of a great island of trash, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of manmade debris spread over hundreds of miles of sea—more like a soup than a floating garbage dump. Recycling is more complicated than we were taught: less than nine percent of the plastic we create is reused, and the majority ends up in the ocean. And plastic pollution isn’t confined to the open ocean: it’s in much of the air we breathe and the food we eat.  

In Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, journalist Erica Cirino brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. From the deck of a plastic-hunting sailboat with a disabled engine, to the labs doing cutting-edge research on microplastics and the chemicals we ingest, Cirino paints a full picture of how plastic pollution is threatening wildlife and human health. Thicker Than Water reveals that the plastic crisis is also a tale of environmental injustice, as poorer nations take in a larger share of the world’s trash, and manufacturing chemicals threaten predominantly Black and low-income communities.  

There is some hope on the horizon, with new laws banning single-use items and technological innovations to replace plastic in our lives. But Cirino shows that we can only fix the problem if we face its full scope and begin to repair our throwaway culture. Thicker Than Water is an eloquent call to reexamine the systems churning out waves of plastic waste. 

In a joint feature story for Environmental Health News and Sierra Magazine, journalist Kristina Marusic lays out the petrochemical and plastic industries’ colonization of Pennsylvania, use of fracked gas to make plastic, and the resulting injustices and environmental degradation that harms communities and helps drive the climate crisis.

Scientists attempted to compost conventional single-use, petrochemical-based plastic tea bags and “bioplastic” (made of PLA, plant starch, or a mixture of those things) tea bags in real-environmental soil conditions for one year. They found that many of the “bioplastic” tea bags—even those marketed as “biodegradable”—did not break down in soil, nor did the petrochemical-based plastic teabags. Tea bags made with plastic and many “bioplastics” create microplastic particles that pollute the Earth and our bodies. The study, while it does not evaluate chemical risks, highlights the need to further study the hazards of plastic and “bioplastic” exposure and pollution in addition to showing how single-use plastic and “bioplastic” teabags are not biodegradable and create hazardous waste.

The Marine Debris & Plastic Source Reduction Toolkit is a comprehensive plastic source reduction toolkit that can be used to determine your campus plastic footprint and create a source reduction plan. You can learn how to change campus procurement practices and establish source reduction policies.

It was developed by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) and the University of California (Santa Barbara, San Diego, and San Francisco campuses, as well as the University of California Office of the President), for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The University of California has established the Zero Waste Initiative as a way to work toward reducing, and ultimately eliminating, plastic consumption and waste on all UC campuses. Policy Goals for the Zero Waste Initiative include:

  • Campuses will achieve zero waste (defined as 90% diversion from landfill).
  • Campuses will reduce per capita municipal solid waste generation to 25% below fiscal year 2015-16 levels by 2025, and 50% below fiscal year 2015-16 levels by 2030.
  • The University is committed to the reduction and elimination of single-use items such as plastic bags, single-use plastic foodware accessory items and single-use plastic beverage bottles.
  • By 2020, the University will prohibit the sale, procurement and distribution of packaging foam.

Each UC campus has a plan. Your campus can too.