In 2018, hundreds of companies joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) Global Commitment to tackle plastic pollution. Many major companies — representing 20 percent of all plastic production globally — were part of this cohort, voluntarily pledging to accomplish the following by 2025:
- Ensure 100 percent of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable
- Increase the share of post-consumer recycled content across all plastic packaging used
- Decrease the use of virgin plastic in packaging
- Take action to move from single-use towards reuse models where relevant
- Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging
For all but the first goal, signatories set their own progress metrics. Coca-Cola pledged 25 percent post-consumer recycled content (PCR) in its packaging, Nestlé a 33 percent reduction in virgin plastic use, and on and on.
If this sounded too good to be true to you at the time, you were right.
Back in 2021, Gartner predicted that 90 percent of these commitments wouldn’t be met by 2025. And in its 2022 Progress Report, EMF confirmed that fear: In almost all areas, most commitments won’t be met, and the target of achieving 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging will "almost certainly" not be met. In fact, there’s actually been an overall increase in the use of virgin plastic — back to 2018 levels.
Economic downturn and empty promises
We first have to step back and acknowledge economic conditions. The Global Commitment pledges were made at a time when the economy was roaring and the supply chain was humming. The COVID-19 pandemic was nowhere on the radar. There was no war in Ukraine. With years until their pledges came due, organizations felt they had time. Time they needed for multi-stakeholder dialogues, such as the U.S. Plastics Pact, to actually lead to tangible improvements in the systems for producing, using, recovering and processing plastics.
We also can’t ignore the fact that it’s easy to make commitments. There’s no expectation of immediate action or results. And, by the time the due date for the commitment arrives, the person who made it may not even be in their role anymore. Commitments can be used as a cover or tactic to buy time, and the PR benefit of making a commitment always seems to outweigh the negative attention from failing it — especially when a company is just one of many that failed.
I’m not insinuating that empty commitments were the status quo for the Global Commitment. In fact, many — maybe even most — signatories did make some progress against at least one key metric.
Offering a few highlights from the 2022 Progress Report, several major fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies — Keurig Dr Pepper, L’Oréal, SC Johnson and Unilever — have increased PCR use in their packaging portfolio by 10 percent or more. Some companies have gone above and beyond their plastic packaging reduction goals, such as clothing brand H&M, which has achieved a 34.4 percent reduction over its goal of 25 percent by 2025. Looking to reuse, a space in which few signatories have shown much progress at all, L’Occitane has increased its percentage of reusable plastic packaging to 16.3 percent.
Pledges only go so far
We can honor these steps in the right direction while still recognizing that we need leaps and bounds. Even for the positive examples I just mentioned, you might say, "Too little, too late." Or rightfully question whether some signatories intentionally set achievable goals when they could be pushing themselves to go further.
What’s standing in the way of faster and more meaningful progress when it comes to plastics?
- The economics of recycling: Most kinds of plastics aren’t broadly recyclable, not because they can’t be recycled, but because the economics don’t line up. It costs more to recycle them than to landfill them. The only solution is major money flow. But even great tools such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) or deposit return systems (DRS) don’t bring about enough money flow to ensure that everything collected gets recycled. Take a look at Germany, one of the first countries to set up EPR (back in the 1990s). Of the items collected in yellow bins there, like plastic packaging, less than half is actually recycled, with most being incinerated (44.1 percent in 2014). EPR is still an important tool, but it needs to create enough money flow to make hard-to-recycle items profitable to recycle. That means taxing companies more, which isn't an easy sell (especially during an economic downturn). Now, the good news is, when a profitable economic equation is present, infrastructure will magically appear (no need to subsidize it). In other words, it’s not "build it, and they will come” but “set it up for success, and it will be built."
- Convenience and profit as motivators: While recycling is an important part of the circular economy, it’s only part of the answer to the waste crisis. What should really be the main focus is reducing and reusing (addressed in Global Commitment targets five and four, respectively). Why hasn’t there been more momentum here? It comes down to convenience and profit. Consumers are used to the convenience and low prices of the disposable products available today. Companies want to maximize profits. The result is that they choose the cheapest packaging options available, typically highly disposable and hard to recycle.
- No unified and comprehensive legislation: As EMF says in its progress report, voluntary corporate pledges aren’t enough. Comprehensive and unified government action is needed to accelerate progress toward a circular economy for plastics. For sustainability to be a true commercial priority for corporations, legislation must incentivize sustainable choices and de-incentivize unsustainable ones. Governments around the world have begun stepping up, enacting recycling claim standards, packaging bans and EPR laws. Progress is slow, but it’s gaining momentum.
Because of the looming recession, expect to see companies further deprioritizing sustainability investments this year. But they’re already thinking ahead about damage control, planning consumer-facing sustainability programs for 2024 and 2025 that will distract from larger unmet commitments.
In 2025, there will be media and consumer outrage around all these failed commitments. While we can recognize economic pressures and other barriers, as well as the progress that has been made (however small), we should hold companies accountable. And we must also use that moment to call for legislation that actually holds them legally accountable.
Ultimately, we need to move away from plastic entirely. The true solution is to stop it at the source. We all need to vote for a better future by buying less.