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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Greenpeace published a report last week on corporate responses to the burgeoning plastic pollution crisis that minced no words:
In response to public motivation to resolve the global plastic pollution crisis, some of the world’s largest companies that produce massive amounts of wasteful, single-use plastic packaging have started to admit that they need to act. Some have made commitments that seem aspirational, but closer scrutiny shows that they are mostly continuing on the same track by investing in false solutions that fail to move us away from single- use plastic, diverting attention away from better systems, perpetuating the throwaway culture, and confusing people in the process. This is a transformative moment for our society. The world’s largest companies should not remain stuck in the past by promoting false solutions but instead should urgently reprioritize corporate business models, and follow the lead of people all over the world by kicking o a just transition away from a throwaway economy.
Not only is plastic pollution its own environmental catastrophe, but it contributes to the other threat to planetary survival: climate change:
It has also been estimated that, by the end of 2019 alone, globally, plastic production and burning will emit the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants (report , p. 3, citations omitted).
Faced with these threats, the sensible thing to do would be drastically curtail the production and use of much plastics, particularly unnecessary, single use plastic, no?
Alas, that’s not what’s happening:
Despite the increasing scientific understanding of the irreversible damage plastic can cause to our environment and communities, plastic production is projected to increase. The fossil fuel industry intends to increase production by an additional 40% over the next decade, and plastic could account for 20% of the total global oil consumption. Companies including Shell and ExxonMobil have invested a combined $180 billion since 2010 into plastic production, using cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) in the United States. Petrochemical companies are expanding plastic production operations on the Gulf Coast of the United States, where communities have long been ghting the toxic effects of oil and gas refining.European companies are also hungrily exploiting the natural gas rush, with the Ineos Corporation making the biggest petrochemical investment in the EU in 20 years, into plastic production infrastructure, including a “virtual pipeline” to flood Europe with cheap fracked gas from the US to make plastic, a plan which has generated an international outcry. In Asia, it’s also reported that petrochemical producers including Sinopec, Petronas and Hengli Petrochemical are investing billions of dollars into expanding plastic production (report, p. 3, citations omitted).
Greenpeace identifies fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) – Nestle, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Coca Cola and Mondelez – as the source of the most frequently identi ed branded plastic pollution collected worldwide. And what are these companies doing to fix the problem? Why their chasing our old friends, the recycling fairy and the technofix fairy, for a magic sparkle pony solution, so that everyone can more or less go forward and operate as before (see these previous posts, Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade, Recycling Woes: Indonesia Sends Waste Shipment Back to Australia, and Plastic Watch: Recycling Woes):
To date, no major FMCG has made a commitment to reduce the total volume or number of units of single-use packaging it sells, or to invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems, and only a handful of companies have even disclosed their plastic footprint. Companies and retailers using single-use plastic packaging need to urgently adopt reduction targets, decrease the number of products they sell packaged in single-use plastic, and signi cantly invest in new delivery systems based on reusable and re llable packaging constructed of durable materials and designed to achieve multiple uses (report, p. 4, citations omitted).
The plastic pollution crisis will only be resolved when companies that profit from single-use plastic declare peak plastic, and commit to urgent reductions in the amount of single-use disposable packaging units they sell. An obvious first step is immediately eliminating unnecessary and excessive packaging, such as coffee capsules. They will also need to adopt a publicly available, comprehensive plan to invest in new ways to bring products to consumers in reusable and rellable packaging that is durable, affordable and more responsibly produced. Many diverse reuse and refill options exist currently, and with innovation, even more could be developed. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that replacing even 20% of single-use packaging could be worth $10 billion in value, with other benefits beyond the reduced environmental impacts, including customer convenience and choice. But fundamentally, companies also need to reimagine their business models based on the recognition that we cannot continue to produce disposable packaging that is used for seconds but pollutes our planet for generations (report, p. 5).
The report further debunks some of the inadequate solutions companies have proposed: such as replacing single-use plastics with paper. But cutting down trees and forests to replace plastic only exacerbates climate change, as forests play a unique role in removing and storing carbon (report, pp. 7-8). Similarly, two technofix solutions: bio-based or compostable plastics, prove to be no panaceas, upon closer examination (report, 11). (I discussed the latter problem further in Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade).
And recycling? Fuggedaboutit. That’s no cure-all – even if the global recycling market hadn’t collapsed after China stopped accepting most recyclable imports. The report notes that 90% of the plastic ever produced is not recycled and devotes several pages to discussing problems with recycling. I’ve written extensively about these problems before, so will not repeat that analysis here (interested readers who’ve missed those earlier posts can turn to pp. 12-23 of the report). I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and recycle. But recycling alone isn’t a sufficient solution to the plastic pollution problem.
What Is To Be Done?
Greenpeace says we need a reuse revolution, and I concur:
As a priority, we call for the reduction of units sold in single-use packaging, and for investment in solutions focused on reuse, refill and other systems not dependant on disposables. Ultimately companies need to rethink how products are delivered to the consumer. In the transition to avoiding throwaway plastic, replacing virgin plastic with non-toxic, recycled (and recyclable) plastic only has a limited role in addressing plastic overproduction (report, p. 23, citations omitted).
While conceding there’s no silver bullet for describing what these reusable options would look like, Greenpeace outlines some important criteria for investment into the delivery of reuse and refill options: affordability, durability, non-toxicity, convenience, and simplicity. Moreover, the system should value manufacturing and delivery workers, small business owners, and consumers more than profits for upper management (report, p. 25). Yes, I know with that recommendation, they’re swimming against the tide. But the times they are a changin’ – and who ever thought, 3 or 4 years ago, that Medicare for All, free college, and student loan relief, to name just a smattering, would be front and center on today’s political agenda.
Bad New Out of India
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a cautiously optimistic post: India seemed poised to join Canada and the European Union, and ban a subset of single-use plastics, nationwide (see India to Ban Single-Use Plastics; Global Recycling Market Still Chaotic). Alas, things did not work out as expected, and a last-minute lobbying blitz by Indian companies led the Modi government to shelve those plans, indefinitely. As the Economic Times reports:
India has held off imposing a blanket ban on single-use plastics to combat pollution, officials said on Tuesday, a measure seen as too disruptive for industry at a time when it is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses.
The plan was for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to outlaw six items on Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of the birth of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, as part of a broader campaign to rid India of single-use plastics by 2022.
But two officials said there would be no immediate move to ban plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets and instead the government would try to curb their use.
The Confederation of Indian Industry, a lobby group, said the move had become an existential issue for several economic sectors because alternatives were not immediately available.
It said small-sized plastic bottles used for pharmaceutical or health products should be exempted as there is no alternate available. Sachets made from so-called multi-layered packaging should also not be banned, as that could disrupt supplies of products like biscuits, salt and milk, the confederation said.
“There was a conscious decision within the government not to hit businesses hard for now and discourage use of plastic only on a voluntary basis,” said an official working on policy. He declined to be identified in line with government rules.
This is disingenuous at best. Not so long ago, India didn’t use plastic, and necessary items were available and distributed.
As CNN reports:
Jairam Ramesh, a former Indian Environment Minister with the opposition Congress party, tweeted: “As Env Min I resisted blanket ban on use of single-use plastics. Plastics industry employs lakhs (hundreds of thousands) & the real problem is how we dispose & recycle waste. The ban will only grab headlines, home & abroad, and mask the Modi regime’s true environmental record.”
….India’s plastic industry officially employs around 4 million people across 30,000 processing units, out of which 90% are small to medium-sized businesses, according to India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust set up by the Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Plastics also support thousands employed informally such as ragpickers as well as street food and market vendors who are reliant on single-use plastic.
Ramesh seems to get it exactly wrong – and contradicts the message of the Greenpeace report: the solution to alleviating plastic pollution is to stop producing and using it in the first instance. Don’t make so much of a mess, especially when you don’t have good clean-up options.
And the bit about the street food and market vendors? Rather bogus. Not so long ago these vendors made do without plastic – and some of them still do. Chai wallahs – aka tea vendors – sold tea in terra cotta cups, which when discarded, deteriorated – ashes to ashes, dust to dust -and left no long-lasting waste. You still find places that follow the old ways, and eschew plastic chai cups. Terra cotta has the added advantage that chai so delivered doesn’t burn your fingers; plastic cups don’t offer such protection. Rather than using plastic (or paper) plates for street food, plates made out of pressed leaves are widely available. Making such plates is a source of rural employment.
The world is drowning in plastic. The standard advice given when you find yourself in a hole: stop digging. So these plastic pushers need to understand: business as usual can’t continue. The solution to the plastic pollution crisis is to stop producing and using the material for all but essential purposes. Single-use plastics, and packaging, don’t come anywhere close to meeting that standard.