Greenpeace Report: How Companies Still Have it Wrong on Plastic Pollution “Solutions”

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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).

Greenpeace recommends:

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 reasoning:

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.

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  1. butch

    Lets not forget the nano-particle plastic polymers raining down on us from the climate geo-engineers spraying us daily. Oh wait, thats a “conspiracy” theory in unbelievable plain sight!!!

      1. JTMcPhee

        It may not be intentional geoengineering, but the “rain of plastic nanoparticles” is a real thing:

        Carbon combustion as a source of the energy we are addicted to was (i don’t believe) intentional geoengineering, but now we got the effects of what came to be… a true if unintentional (until recent times as the energy companies knew what greenhouse gases they produce are doing) global experiment in geoengineering. Here’s a breakdown:

        I see that Bill Gates, along with several other billionaires and various governments hoping to weaponize climate change mechanisms like shooting sulfates or aluminum bits into the upper atmosphere, are well along in prepping for still more forms of geoengineering, free from “democratic processes.”

    1. jef

      Butch – The nano-particle plastic polymers have entered the hydrologic cycle due to the fact that plastic is used in EVERYTHING. The nano-particle plastics come primarily from textiles, not just clothing but we use plastic textiles for too many things to list here.

      There has never been nor has there ever been a proposal to “geo-engineer” using plastics. There are in fact cloud seeding operation that are happening but they are extremely small areas and very expensive. The proposed atmospheric “geo-engineering” needs to happen at higher altitudes than current technology is capable of.

      I would recommend that you are very careful with the whole “chemtrail” issue if you want to remain sane.

  2. Joe Well

    Why do we still have plastic cups when paper cups are readily available and work almost as well?

    I don’t want to assign homework to anyone, but I have been wondering about this a lot because the plastic cups are impossible to avoid. It was not long ago that places like McDonald’s served cold beverages in paper cups and hot ones in styrofoam. They made the painful transition from styrofoam to paper but then the mostly cosmetic transition from paper to plastic? I don’t get it.

    Also, what is the recent obsession with paper straws for plastic cups?

    1. Dan

      How about replacing environmentally sustainable paper for unrecyclable plastic in the U.S.Mail? sent everyone in our town a slab of plastic measuring 6″x9″ advertising their online whatever with a special promotion code only good until the end of the month. No recycling possible, it’s No 7 plastic “other.”

      Wonder how many thousands of years’s “special offer” will last in a landfill, or the sea, as some will end up?

      I’m adding them to the Boycott Forever List.

    2. inode_buddha

      Cheaper to manufacture, and therefore cheaper to purchase, or more $$$ in somebody’s pocket. Even with machinery, you have to count how many steps it takes to produce something. Even though the raw materials for plastic maybe more expensive than paper, the number of steps required to manufacture a cup is lower, more than making up the difference in price. When you are making a product in batches of millions of units, those fractions of a penny add up fast.

    3. Foy

      If you are talking about the type of paper cups used by Starbucks et al these are very difficult to recycle as they have “thin coating of polyethylene plastic to prevent the paper from getting mushy”. This plastic layer makes the hot beverage cups unrecyclable in most paper recycling systems.

      Only 3 out of 350 recycling mills in the US are equipped to deal with these paper cups, so they end up in land fill according to the above article.

  3. jef

    There are enormous obstacles to reuse concepts. I had a business plan about 10 years ago where we provided an alternative to packaging. I had a company develop heavy gage wire carriers like those that were used for milk bottles. They fit an assortment of widemouth jar sizes and numbers from 2 to 6. The jars all used the same durable, reusable lid from half pint to half gallon. A sleeve was designed from hemp to insulate the jars when required and also provided padding. Works great for dry product also.

    We would distribute the containers fully sanitized. Kiosks would be located everywhere and there was a drop-off system worked out to safely deposit used containers for partial credit.

    We also provided local service for canning that revolved around pressure steam system using solar thermal when practical. Farmers could drop off unsold produce or other items that they could then offer year around at year around farmers markets. Many other details were worked out and the concept really is elegantly simple and practical.

    Ultimately investors bailed for two reasons. First was the question of contamination. Even though I had a bulletproof system that was easy to understand people just couldn’t get past it. Second was the fact that the finished product, no matter how you worked it out, was more expensive that what was readily available off the shelf, sometimes but quite a lot, and investors decided that severely limited success.

    I have used much of the concept for years now and it works fantastic and many who see me doing this admire it but so far no one has any interest in actually committing to the change.

      1. converger

        There is little to no intellectual property to protect. This is an elegant solution that optimizes widely available components. If you are an investor insisting on 15%+ annual return on investment, the basic wonderfulness of this kind of approach is irrelevant.

        1. jef

          BINGO! I would say that any and all REAL solutions that address the real issues have the same characteristics. Indeed for the last 18 to 20 years including 5 in Palo Alto CA. I have seen and pitched dozens. Unless there is an opportunity to get rich there is no interest in doing what can truly work.
          I would take it a step further and say that any and all solutions by definition means more expensive to implement and less money to be raked in by capital looking for return. This post is a prime example. you will get nowhere with corporations asking them to stop selling something that makes them more and more money, or ask them to make what it is they sell more expensive and difficult to sell. The only you can get them to make changes is if you can show how they will increase profit or at least not loose a dime.

          1. Another Amateur Economist

            The reason these kinds of systems are nominally less/not profitable compared to disposable packaging is because our disposable culture externalizes most of the costs of disposable packaging. The price of everything you buy should include the cost of (properly) disposing of the packaging as well as (eventually,) the disposing of the product itself. Return your trash to the store you bought it from.

            What is more, the cost of resource. extraction is also (nominally) subsidized, favoring wasteful use and environmental destruction.

            JBTW: Every bit of litter ever produced was a source of profit for someone. The planet is being trashed for profit,

  4. Susan the other`

    Just the fact that Modi tried to eliminate single use plastics is a very hopeful sign. The problem with jamming the solution through before the everyday economy is ready is a big one. Witness the Yellow Vests. I’ve been thinking, since The Market is already so ridiculous, why not use it – have the Fed do it: Pay more for single use plastics than current buyers can pay. Soak up all the supply both new and used and at the same time promote a feasible replacements – paper, wood, tin, cloth, glass, ceramic. When everyone is living and dying by the deaf, dumb and blind Market it is absurd to expect profit-making corporations to stop what they are doing. Witness the medical industry’s mindset. Those guys could do stand-up comedy. And speaking of the Medical Industrial Complex, replacing plastic packaging would be an easy change for Hospitals, they are already looking in all their couch cushions for some extra revenue. And per Greenpeace, FMCGs are the biggest culprit and grocery stores are their enablers. But grocery stores have been very successful with their discontinuation of plastic bags. So they could turn on the big purveyors of plastic packaging in the same way. And grocery stores are the most logical place for recycling bins as well. In fact grocery stores could become important cogs – they sell the stuff according to their specifications, and the recyclable multiple use packaging could go back to them and, if they were enterprising, they would make more recyclable packaging out of it. They can change their business model to selling in bulk as well. If that’s what they are selling, what producer/supplier is going to wrap all their crap up in plastic? Etc.

  5. Ignacio

    So far responsibility has been poured on consumers while corps do nothing and when needed find the correct excuse and lobby the corresponding high places to keep things going undisturbed.

    I visited INEOS web page for curiosity, and could see their cynicism in their “sustainability” section where they admire themselves because of their “technology” how energy efficient they are… this caugth my eye:

    At INEOS we take on the challenges of emissions reductions by making products that positively impact carbon efficiency and lead to CO2 savings. This phrase is just below a picture showing the nice plastic bottles they manufacture. INEOS saves CO2 making plastic bottles!!!

  6. GF

    “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.”

    Let’s put capitalism and market forces to work by working with the buyers of the plastic products to stop buying them. If the FMCGs can’t sell their plastic products, maybe they will change to more environmentally friendly versions – or just go out of business.

  7. oaf

    Exactly; no consumption?…no market.
    What if we took our own reusable packaging to the stores; peeled the goods; and left the unwanted plastic; the way shoppers peel ears of corn at the grocery store? Do you think the producers would eventually get the message after the stores got sick of it?

    1. David

      You can do this in France at local markets (I use glass jars which just need to be washed and re-used) and it’s even starting to be possible at some supermarkets with delicatessen counters. It saves the merchant money as well.

  8. Another Scott

    I still think the focus on things like plastic bottles, bags, and straws is a strategic mistake. They serve as purpose and the alternatives often annoy consumers, making them antagonistic towards efforts to reduce plastic waste. For example, plastic bags get banned (and fees are added for using paper ones), yet deliveries from Amazon come in very large boxes, which are mostly air, with plastic bubbles, without similar bans and fees. Which are more wasteful?

    I’d rather crack down on excess, often duplicate packaging, which always seems to be increasing. Today, I went clothes shopping and witnessed two examples. First, men’s shirts. These always have a lot of packaging between the pins, cardboard, and tissue paper to keep the shape, but they were also displayed in plastic bags. Given that I wash before wearing, that bag is just total waste. But that complaint is old, the second I experience for the first time today. One of the shoes (not the entire pair) was in a plastic bag inside the shoe box. I don’t understand what purpose this had. Eliminating these duplicate packaging would increase my satisfaction and lower cost for the producer, while improving the environment.

  9. inode_buddha

    How about changing the depreciation schedule on things like office equipment? Have you got any idea how many *tons* of computers and peripherals get ground up and dumped into the sea or into the ground when they hit 4 years old? Machines that often work just fine… but they are fully written off every three years, and a large corp will change out 10,000 units every single year. Mostly plastic.

  10. jonboinAR

    I think the solution is simple, if not easy. Put a significant tax on plastic packaging. Make some of that redeemable upon recycling, actual recycling. Adjust tax until you (we) get the result you (we) desire. The only problem I see is the political will to do (something like) that.

    1. Joe Well

      >>recycling, actual recycling

      But as JL keeps saying, that’s the recycling fairy. Recycling will always involve a substantial loss of material and a substantial consumption of energy. Better just to ban it all once. And a complete ban is an easier sell: if we convince people that single-use plastic is poison (which it is) it makes far more sense to ban it than to tax it.

  11. cnchal

    > 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.

    > 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.

    What do these fast-moving consumer goods companies produce, market and sell?

    Sugar and carbohydrate infused poisons. The world is drowning in that, yet if only they didn’t use plastic for packaging, it would all be good.

    Is that not the fine pin prick definition of cognitive dissonance?

  12. The Heretic

    The market will never act to save the environment. The problem with hoping for consumers to change is that it will be reluctant and slow… consumers like cheap, lightweight, effective (keeping product clean and fresh) packaging… for now plastics are it. The problem with hoping for sellers to change is that’s they also like cheap (hence profitable), market competitive (the one who goes to inconvenient reusable packaging will be the first to die), lightweight, low cost logistics, and effective packaging (same as consumers, but they also like long shelf life). They also love their packaging because it supports their branding strategy, and different package designs will may preclude any universal recycling program, and hence are a potential barrier to cooperation among companies. Both have short term orientation.. consumers are thinking about now, or perhaps up to next week; and sellers are thinking about next quarter profits. Hence the hoping the market will make changes to save the environment is almost a non-starter, since neither consumer nor seller would have the incentive to switchover to a environmentally friendly solution.

    Only a player with long term perspective, and a sense of common good, can push change on both consumers and sellers. Hence it will require government regulations, to force buyers and sellers to select an environmentally favourable solution. The government would perhaps set a time mandate… three years to adapt, beyond which no more disposable packaging (like plastic water bottles) maybe sold… it will result in big changes and large short term gripping… but necessary.

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