Is the global quest to end plastic waste a circular firing squad?
It’s been roughly three years since the world’s attention turned to the environmental perils of plastic waste, especially from single-use packaging. And while intense media attention on the topic has inevitably moved on to other issues, the action behind the scenes has been progressing at a steady clip.
According to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment 2019 Progress Report (PDF), released last month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which tracks the commitments of more than 400 businesses, governments and others around the world, there is "promising progress on two fronts": the number of organizations "laying the foundations to scale and accelerate action"; and a quantitative baseline that can be used to measure such progress across a significant group of businesses between now and 2025.
"These are important steps forward," says the foundation.
Not so much, say environmental activists.
And there, in a compostable nutshell, is the heart of the challenge companies face as they seek to transform their products to adopt circular models. Simply put: There’s no agreed-upon end game, and incremental solutions simply won’t cut it, in the eyes of plastics activists.
For most packaged-goods companies, the stated goal is to eliminate waste — closing the loop by implementing compostable, reusable and recyclable versions of single-use plastic packaging — and then to work with local communities, waste haulers and others to ensure that their used packaging actually gets composted, reused or recycled. It often means working simultaneously at internal (package design), value chain (suppliers and consumers) and external (recycling infrastructure) scales, often in collaboration with peer companies, municipalities and others. In other words, a systemic approach.
For many environmentalists, that’s not good enough. Indeed, they say, most solutions companies are pursuing are just plain wrong. They want to do away with plastics altogether, and anything short of that is, well, just packaging.
That’s my take from comparing the aforementioned Ellen MacArthur progress report with another report released last month, from Greenpeace, "Throwing Away Our Future: How Companies Still Have It Wrong on Plastic Pollution 'Solutions'" (PDF).
Together, they frame the complexity facing companies and supply chains as they seek to transition to circularity, as well as the apparent misalignment between companies and their activist critics.
First, the corporate side. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "Businesses representing over 20 percent of all plastic packaging globally have for the first time united behind a common vision for a circular economy for plastics, together with 19 forward-thinking governments."
Moreover, it reports, about 60 percent of brands, retailers and packaging producers in the signatory group that have used polystyrene, extruded polystyrene or polyvinylidene chloride "have eliminated or have concrete plans to phase out these materials from their portfolio."
The number is even higher — 70 percent — for single-use straws, carrier bags and "undetectable carbon black plastics," used primarily in fast food trays and other plastic pots, tubs and containers.
- More than a third of relevant signatories have active reuse pilots, although less than 3 percent of signatories’ packaging is actually reusable today.
- Forty-three brands, packaging producers and retailer signatories — 36 percent of all signatories — "are currently engaged in testing and piloting reuse business models across different markets and product types."
- About 60 percent of their plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable in practice and at scale today.
- Signatories from across the plastics value chain — including recyclers but also plastics and packaging producers — as well as governments are currently making “substantial investments in infrastructure required to achieve this targeted increase and respond to increased demand for postconsumer recycled content.”
- Signatories are beginning to set explicit targets to reduce virgin plastic consumption in absolute terms. Their efforts on elimination, reuse, recycled content and materials substitution "are driving a decoupling from finite resources." Examples cited include Unilever (50 percent) and Mars (25 percent) setting 2025 targets to reduce their overall use of virgin plastic in packaging, with PepsiCo doing the same for its beverage business (20 percent).
Concludes the foundation: "There remains large potential for businesses to make greater strides on elimination by moving beyond these commonly identified problematic items towards more fundamental innovation-led elimination." It cites technologies that keep produce fresh without packaging or integrated labels on plastic bottles that minimize multi-material packaging or technologies that greatly improve materials sorting in landfill operations.
All that potential aside, the progress achieved in a relatively short time frame is significant, if not remarkable, given the packaged goods industry’s historic recalcitrance at changing packaging designs in the name of sustainability.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go before circularity becomes the norm, not the exception, among consumer goods. Some companies and products likely never will get there. Still, the pace of change is undeniably faster than almost anyone expected.
So, how is all this playing in the world of environmental activists? Not so well, according to Greenpeace.
The nonprofit acknowledges that companies are switching from plastic to other forms of single-use packaging, investing in partnerships to improve recycling and waste management, and looking to emerging technologies. But these solutions, it says, "enable these companies to continue business as usual rather than reducing demand for plastic." It criticizes what it calls "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."
The Greenpeace report focuses on a subset of products called fast-moving consumer goods, or FMCG. These include low-cost, non-durable household products such as packaged foods, beverages, toiletries, over-the-counter drugs and other consumables.
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 significantly invest in new delivery systems based on reusable and refillable packaging constructed of durable materials and designed to achieve multiple uses.
In Greenpeace’s world, many avenues being pursued by FMCGs are dead-ends, or worse. Switching from plastic to paper endangers forests. Biobased and compostable plastics are greenwash. Chemical recycling — an umbrella term for several emerging technologies that return plastics to their molecular state to be converted back into new plastics — is "toxic tech."
The activist group was similarly dismissive of an announcement last month by BP Petrochemicals about Infinia, "a game-changing recycling technology" that holds the promise of diverting "billions of colored PET bottles and food trays from landfill and incineration." The company said it plans to construct a $25 million pilot plant in the United States to prove the technology, before progressing to full-scale commercialization.
Greenpeace dismissed BP’s announcement as "a desperate attempt from a plastic polluter to ensure it can continue making profits off of plastics."
Changing the conversation
So, then, what passes the activists’ muster?
"We need a reuse revolution," the group flatly declares:
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 dependent 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.
Such solutions, it says, must be affordable, durable, non-toxic, simple and convenient. In addition, they should support "a just transition to a plastic-free economy" that "values manufacturing and delivery workers, small-business owners and consumers more than profits for upper management."
(Greenpeace is hosting "Global Refill Day" this week "to demonstrate the change we wish to see from companies.")
All good, of course, although an actual "reuse revolution" is likely a ways off, at least at the scale Greenpeace likely would find acceptable. The Loop partnership, launched earlier this year, which involves brands such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars and Coca-Cola, is barely six months old and operates in just two geographic markets. It is far too early to tell whether consumers will embrace it or brands will find it profitable, and how far and wide it will expand.
Such subtleties don’t typically concern activists, who want change now, never mind the cost or disruption. And their concerns are real and urgent, as we see what the scourge of single-use plastic packaging has done to the world's rivers, oceans and landscapes, as well as the concomitant metastasis of toxicity it has brought to the global environment.
So, how do we get from here to circularity — quickly, affordably and effectively — in a way that feels more collaborative than combative? It’s an open question.
The challenge is hardly unique to plastics and packaging. It's common to sustainability: Activists name a bold goal and set a high bar while holding companies accountable for making progress. End of story. It rarely involves the recognition that societal shifts are expensive, time-consuming and messy propositions, and that consumers don’t always embrace the requisite changes, even if they're good for the planet.
Something’s gotta give — on both sides of the equation.
Companies are really good at saying, "We’re doing the best we can," even when their efforts may be timid, half-hearted or inadequate. They might get further, faster by being more forthcoming about the challenges they face in making these shifts and by inviting consumers (and activists) to be a bigger part of designing innovative solutions.
Activists, for their part, need to embrace partial measures on the road to what is likely to be a decade-long shift to their ideal state. They are really good at telling companies, “Nope, that’s not good enough." They might get further, faster by saying, "Thank you. Now do more."