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.”

Manila — The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Nestlé come in as the world’s top plastic polluters for five years running, according to Break Free From Plastic’s latest global brand audit report. The 2022 Brand Audit analyzes five years’ worth of citizen science trash-collection data, exposing how corporate voluntary commitments are not effectively reducing these companies’ devastating environmental impacts. In response, activists around the world are calling for a Global Plastics Treaty that can provide legally-binding mechanisms and enforcement policies to effectively reduce the amount of plastic both produced and used by corporations.  

Since 2018, global cleanups have been carried out by more than 200,000 volunteers in 87 countries and territories to identify the companies polluting the most places with the most plastic waste. Over all five years, more Coca-Cola Company branded items were collected than the next two top polluters combined. This year’s brand audits found more than 31,000 Coca-Cola branded products, doubling the proportion of Coca-Cola products found in 2018. These findings are revealed as the top polluter is serving as a sponsor of the UN climate change conference COP27 in Egypt. Given that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, Coca-Cola’s role in COP27 baffles environmental activists.

Today, in response to corporate inaction, activists worldwide are commemorating a 5-year “Trashiversary” for these companies by mailing or delivering their own waste to them to demand urgent action. The actions are taking place today, targeting Coca-Cola in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, the US, and Zambia; Unilever in Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa; and PepsiCo in India and Tanzania.

In 2018, the same year that Brand Audits efforts started, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme together launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This program centered on a set of voluntary commitments to address plastic pollution made by major fast-moving consumer goods companies, including most of the top plastic polluters. However, the Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report revealed that their 2025 targets will “almost certainly” not be met. For many of these companies, the use of plastic packaging has actually increased since joining the Global Commitment, exposing how voluntary actions are not leading to any kind of significant impact on plastic reduction. 

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 this Open Access Government research report, learn how the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the plastic pollution crisis. Namely, it did this because people were driven to purchase single-use plastics they perceived as helping them to avoid cross-contamination, recycling initiatives became mismanaged or were shut down, lockdowns drove people to purchase takeaway food, and disposable plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) has been widely worn by people over the past several years.

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.

Stanford pediatrician and arbovirologist Desiree LaBeaud and her colleagues created a community-led mosquito research project in Kenya, where mosquito-borne diseases are common. They found that plastic pollution, including containers and bottles, can serve as major breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. In an effort to reduce disease, LaBeaud and colleagues have launched a nonprofit to clean up plastic pollution to prevent continued spread of mosquito-borne diseases.