What will it take to end plastic pollution?
Part Two of a two-part series. Part One can be found here.
The past year has seen a significant uptick in concern by activists, companies and others about the impacts of plastic pollution on people and the environment. With that concern has come an impressive spate of commitments to reduce, if not eliminate, plastic waste.
Altogether, they are necessary but insufficient.
What will it take to truly address the challenge? Despite what many activists — and probably most of the public — think, it’s not simply a matter of declaring plastics verboten and moving on to something else. Plastics are too interwoven into our world, and offer too many societal benefits, including many that fall within the sustainability realm: reducing food waste and spoilage; improving health care services; reducing infant mortality; cutting energy use and others.
And there’s disagreement even among environmentalists whether the focus should be on eliminating plastic waste or plastics altogether. One of those goals is achievable, albeit over a decade or two. The other, not so much.
In recent months, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen activists, companies and others about the challenges of plastic pollution and what to do about it. There’s no silver bullet. Far from it. Rather, it will take a combination of innovations, incentives and pressures from activists, consumers and the public sector. It’ll also require collaboration across multiple sectors and interests in the private sector, including among competitors, as well as out-of-the-box thinking on the part of all involved.
Perhaps most of all, it will take persistence and patience.
That last commodity may be the one in shortest supply, especially given the growing concerns about plastics in the environment, and particularly in rivers, lakes and oceans, where they harm ecosystems and disrupt food chains. There’s no shortage of research documenting the scope and severity of the problems, including the impacts on human health. And as consumerism takes hold in new corners of the planet, with rising standards of living leading to increased consumption and waste, the problem is bound to get worse before it gets better.
But there are glimmers of hope throughout the economy and around the world.
"Global momentum for a fundamental plastics rethink is greater than ever," noted the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) in a landmark 2017 report, "Catalysing Action," part of the foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative. It cites the European Union, which earlier this year published a Europe-wide Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy, which calls for "greater cooperation by all its key players, from plastics producers to recyclers, retailers and consumers." The EU strategy also calls for "innovation and a shared vision to drive investment in the right direction."
That aligns nicely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation focus: "a new way of thinking about plastics as an effective global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. It aims to harness the benefits of plastics while addressing its drawbacks, delivering drastically better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes." EMF noted: "New, innovative delivery models and evolving use patterns are unlocking a reuse opportunity for at least 20 percent of plastic packaging (by weight), worth at least $9 billion."
It’s a vast, almost limitless, business opportunity that can address multiple environmental, social and public health problems. But first, companies will have to get better at keeping the existing stuff out of waste streams.
In July, Aramark, which provides foodservice operations to schools and universities, corporations, health care facilities, sports venues and other institutions, committed to significantly reduce single-use disposable plastics across its global operations by 2022. The company, which serves 2 billion meals annually across 19 countries, said the initiative was "part of a holistic strategy to address single-use plastics overall."
I first learned about the commitment from John Hocevar, who runs the Oceans Campaign for Greenpeace USA, and who called the initiative the gold standard for corporate commitments. "I don't know of another company that's got a stronger statement," he told me. "I'm hoping that someone else will pass that really soon, but today, they're up there."
What makes Aramark’s commitment so good? After all, at first glance it seems like another me-too announcement about plastics among the dozens we’ve seen over the past year.
I asked Hocevar. "In the very first sentence, they're talking about a global commitment to reduce their plastic footprint," he said. "And it's not just about straws, it's a comprehensive approach. That's what we want to be seeing from business right now."
It should be noted that Hocevar’s enthusiasm for Aramark’s plastics commitment may be in no small part due to his organization’s role in helping the company shape it. Aramark previously had been working with Greenpeace on sustainable seafood, Hocevar said. "The company came to us and said that they were interested in making a new policy on plastic, and would we be willing to talk to them about it. That's how the conversation started," he recounted.
Still, activist groups such as Greenpeace aren’t quick to extol the virtues of most corporate commitments.
Aramark, for its part, became aware of the problem from its customers. "We know it’s important to our consumers from a recent survey," said Kathy Cacciola, Aramark’s senior director of environmental sustainability. That survey found 60 percent of Aramark consumers concerned with "the overuse of plastic." The company hadn’t yet been in the sights of activist groups but decided to be proactive.
Said Cacciola: "We felt like it was the right opportunity and time for us to take a stand."
From the outset, the company aimed for a holistic strategy, and sought sufficient buy-in at all levels. "The implications across our operations and across our consumer base were quite significant," Cacciola said. "So, we focused on ensuring that we had multiple stakeholders, internally and externally, provide their perspective to make sure that what we ultimately announced was successful both operationally as well as from a sort of appetite standpoint."
The company laid out a roadmap for reducing plastic straws and stirrers to start, as well as increasing reusable product offerings and partnering with suppliers and national brand partners to decrease waste. It also engaged consumers to help ensure that everybody was making informed decisions along the way. "That multipronged strategy we felt was more appropriate for where we wanted to be now and gave us a runway for where we could be in the future," Cacciola said.
One part of the strategy involves ramping up reusable containers and utensils. Customers in Aramark’s higher education business, for example, began looking at how students in residential dining facilities can bring their own containers, fill them with food and eventually return them to be washed and reused. Students, among others, already are bringing their own reusable mugs to coffee shops, so there’s some precedent.
Aramark is also looking at reusable cutlery and straws to see what can work across its various consumer bases. "We frankly haven’t figured it out yet," admitted Cacciola, a sentiment I heard from several companies that have made ambitious plastics-reduction commitments. The assumption is that innovations — in materials products and business models — as well as changes in customer habits will come over time.
"This is an important issue to be working on," Cacciola said. "It’s a great challenge for us to have at hand. I think the key for us will be pacing the steps accordingly so that we can get each piece right and frankly not try to bite off the whole iceberg with one fell swoop."
The company’s phaseout of plastic straws and stirrers starts this month. One step at a time.
Not every corporate initiative is met with enthusiasm by activists. Consider Starbucks’ July announcement to "eliminate single-use plastic straws from its more than 28,000 company-operated and licensed stores" around the world. Part of its solution: Create a strawless lid and alternative-material straw options. The company said the move could eliminate more than a billion plastic straws per year from Starbucks stores. So far, so good.
But Starbuck’s announcement didn’t percolate with some activists. That strawless lid "actually contains five times more plastics than the combination of the previous lid and the straw," said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European coordinator of the activist network Break Free From Plastic as well as coordinator of the Rethink Plastic Alliance.
"Starbucks should be promoting deposit systems on reusable caps and straws rather than developing all their marketing around disposable," she told me. She lauded the company’s efforts to encourage customers to bring in their washable mugs for reuse. "If their marketing strategy was around reusables, we would probably be more keen on seeing the kind of changes that they're trying to make." (Starbucks declined an interview for this story.)
Clearly, activists are watchdogging companies on this topic. "We need to have the environmental community step up and monitor this," said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president at the nonprofit As You Sow, who has been on the front lines of corporate waste issues for years. "All of these things are going to take place over five-, six- seven-year lifecycles and we need to have people consistently monitoring this so that we don't lose momentum, or it doesn't drop off once it becomes no longer front-page news."
The search for solutions is being felt at every stage of the plastics value chain. At one end of the chain are chemical companies, the producers of the raw materials for most plastics. There are literally thousands of plastics, each with its own chemical composition and characteristics.
Most people know at least some of the seven major plastics that comprise the SPI Resin Identification Coding System (PDF), created in the late 1980s by the Society of the Plastics Industry. That refers primarily to the six main plastics used for consumer products. No. 7 is a general catch-all category — essentially, every other type of plastic.
The six main codes don’t include some widely used polymers — for example, polytetrafluoroethylene, sold under the brand name Teflon, or polychloroprene, sold as Neoprene, or polymethyl methacrylate, better known as Lucite and Plexiglas. The list is lengthy.
Chemical companies are stepping in with solutions. Dow Chemical touts "the recycle-ready technology we started developing about five, six years ago to simplify the structures to a mono product, to what we call a polyethylene base or a polyolefin base so that everything is compatible," explained Diego Donoso, president of packaging and specialty plastics at the chemical giant.
"We have a lot of technology, but the brand owners, the retailers — if they don't push through, it is very difficult for the changes to move forward," Donoso said. "All this noise and this emotion that is going on is helping basically to align the whole industry. It is very, very different than in the past. It's exponential."
But Donoso is quick to point out that it’s not just the polymers: It’s the entire value chain that needs to change. After all, as he notes, there’s plenty of technology. What’s needed is a systemic approach, starting with package designers and brand owners, all the way through to waste collection and recycling, and back again into new materials, the essence of a circular model.
This is far easier said than done. Consider sachets, small packets made of a thin film of plastic and aluminum in a sandwich-laminate form, commonly used in developing markets. Their small size and affordability have enabled the poor to afford products such as shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, condiments, even some foods — things that are simply too expensive when sold in "normal-sized" packages. For millions of consumers, sachets are a way of life.
But the multi-material makeup of sachets renders them nonrecyclable or degradable, and in countries with inadequate waste collection systems — which is most of the developing world — they become an environmental nightmare. Each year, hundreds of billions of sachets end up in landfills or waterways.
The Philippines, which according to the Ocean Conservancy (PDF) is the third-largest plastic polluter after China and Indonesia, has a robust "sachet economy." According to the Manila Bulletin, Indonesia is also the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China; it consumes some 64 million tons of sachets annually, 1.3 million tons of which end up in the ocean.
"It is a concern, a great concern, for all our communities here, because of this low-value or no-value plastic waste," said Sonia Mendoza, who chairs the Mother Earth Foundation, based in the Philippines, and who previously was a commissioner of that country’s National Solid Waste Management Commission. "When we did a waste audit in the Freedom Island near Manila Bay, the shore was almost covered with sachets."
Mendoza cites Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever among the biggest purveyors of products sold in sachets, at least in terms of what is found during beach clean-ups. She explained that her organization has been pushing these companies to come up with new designs and materials, so far with little success. Instead, the companies are focusing their efforts on finding ways to keep the sachets out of landfills in the first place.
In April, Nestlé announced its ambition to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. P&G this year set a goal to make the packaging for its top 20 brands — including Head & Shoulders shampoo, Tide detergent and Pampers diapers — 100 percent recyclable or reusable. Neither company singled out sachets in their announcements.
Neither goal satisfied Mendoza. "They are shredding this plastic or melting them to produce plastic chairs or eco-bricks, and for us, it's not the real solution," she told me. "We are looking for solutions that will be long-term, like making their packaging not only degradable but biodegradable and recyclable."
CreaSolv represents the kind of closed-loop breakthrough that’s needed to solve the plastics waste problem. Using the process, sachets can be recycled into another generation of plastic sachets, and the residue film can be used to create other products, such as plastic pallets. Unilever is piloting CreaSolv in Indonesia, where the company sells more than half of its products in sachets.
Sachets also exist outside the developing world. More than 10 billion plastic-aluminum packets containing baby food, pet food and beverages are sold each year in the U.K., although fewer than one in 20,000 is recycled, according to the Sunday Times of London. Two-thirds are sent to landfills and nearly all the rest are incinerated.
Creating innovative solutions such as CreaSolv is only half the battle. To effectively recover and reuse plastic from used sachets, Unilever and other companies will need a way to collect them at scale. That represents yet another challenge — and another opportunity.
Recycling and waste-management systems are few and far between in developing economies. That leaves brands, packaging companies and others under pressure to eliminate plastic waste to help build the needed infrastructure in ways that are both economical and align with local culture.
In the Philippines, for example, Unilever is setting up waste-collection schemes to collect sachets by working with local waste banks, governments and retailers. It also aims to empower waste pickers — individuals who harvest and sell valuable materials savaged from streets, dumpsters, landfills and the like — in order to integrate these entrepreneurs into the mainstream economy. The goal: Provide them with long-term income opportunities in exchange for their creating reliable waste streams that can be turned into new materials.
Waste picking, part of what is often referred to as the "informal economy," is vital for families who live on the margins and rely on redeeming waste materials for day-to-day survival. The Informal Economy Monitoring Study (PDF), which examined the realities of workers in 10 cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, found that 65 percent of waste pickers were their primary household earner.
These individuals can be vital for companies, too. "Scavenger systems in places like India and China have very high collection rate for our packages," said Ben R. Jordan, director of supplier sustainability at Coca-Cola. He cites collection rates as high as 80 percent in some areas through informal scavenging systems, at least for the kinds of bottles commonly used by Coke. "There’s a real opportunity from our standpoint to both formalize some of those informal systems but also potentially include other plastics in those systems and really reduce the leakage over there."
Coke is among a group of companies beginning to invest in waste-collection and recycling systems in Asia, through a consortium organized by Closed Loop Partners, which recently spun off a new fund, Circulate Capital, in large part to invest in infrastructure that can decrease plastic "leakage" into waterways and oceans. Roughly 60 percent of all the plastic in global waters originates in five countries — China, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, according to a 2016 study by McKinsey & Company’s environmental business unit and the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.
Circulate’s initial goal to raise $150 million is a drop in the ocean, as it were. Susan Ruffo, who heads international initiatives at the Ocean Conservancy, estimates that "it would take about $5 billion a year in just that region to solve the problem."
There’s more money to come. Since 2014, the Save Our Oceans conference has become a platform for announcing new commitments to reduce marine waste. At this year’s conference, in Bali in October, a group of companies working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development is expected to announce new investments in Asia recycling infrastructure. At that same event, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will launch a major effort to unite businesses and governments behind a common vision and to make ambitious commitments towards a circular economy for plastics.
Meanwhile, the pressure on companies to take action on plastic waste will continue — and likely will ramp up. As You Sow’s MacKerron has been working to put language into shareholder proposals pushing companies to be more aware of the impact of ocean plastics and, of course, to do something about it.
He has seen a wide range in how companies respond to activist or investor pressures on these issues.
"Some companies say to us, ‘We want to move forward on this issue, but we're very conservative about making promises on things we can't really deliver on,’" MacKerron said. "With other companies, it's clear that they're willing to make a promise, and less concerned about how they're going to get there. I think the truth is somewhere in between. I think both of those calculations have been superseded by the fact that there's this huge wash of media attention coming up and raising the pressure on them."
In the short term, he said, companies "are going to just say positive things and hope that within five years either they or their suppliers upstream can figure out the problem. But right now, there is a level of uncertainty that nobody knows today that they can get to a particular technological fix."
MacKerron lauds the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy initiative for pushing companies into a new mindset of rethinking their use of plastics, commending bold commitments, especially audacious ones that companies don’t exactly know how to achieve.
McDonald’s, for example.
"What McDonald's did was pretty darn bold," MacKerron said. "When you consider all the different societies and developing countries they're in, that they're going to try to get all that stuff recycled or composted, it would be an unprecedented, incredible achievement if they could do it. More power to them."
But, he is quick to add, "We need to have the environmental community also step up and monitor this."
That’s the way of the world. Getting from here to a "new plastics economy" will take a lot of push and pull from activists, suppliers, customers and all the rest. It will take a concerted effort, lots of money and more audacious commitments. And an awareness that in the hypercharged world of plastic pollution, partial solutions just won't due.
As Break Free from Plastic’s Lévi Alvarès put it: "There is a motto in the zero-waste movement that says, ‘Always happy, never satisfied.’"
Forewarned is forearmed.