As You Sow Joins Global Plastic Pollution Commitment … But Questions Remain

As You Sow is pleased to be a signatory to a Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste and pollution signed by 250 organizations including many of the world’s largest packaging producers, brands, and retailers. However, it wasn’t an easy decision, with strong commitments offset by key unanswered questions.

The commitment, which was officially launched at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali on Oct. 29, was organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative in cooperation with UN Environment. Signatories include companies representing 20% of plastic packaging produced globally, including several companies that As You Sow has been in dialogue with for many years on plastic pollution such as Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola Co., Nestle SA, PepsiCo, Target, and Unilever.

Freedom Island Coastal Cleanup and Brand Audit, September 2017. Photo credit: #breakfreefromplastic

Freedom Island Coastal Cleanup and Brand Audit, September 2017. Photo credit: #breakfreefromplastic

About 70 consumer goods makers, retailers, hospitality, and packaging producers are pledging by 2025 to:

  • Take action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging

  • Take action to move from single-use towards reuse models where relevant

  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable

  • Set an ambitious 2025 recycled content target across all plastic packaging used

Further, companies endorse the Global Commitment’s common vision statement, which contains six key tenets:

  • Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models is a priority

  • Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing need for single-use packaging

  • All plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable

  • All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice

  • Use of plastic fully decoupled from consumption of finite resources

  • All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals, and the health, safety, and rights of all people involved are respected, especially waste pickers who collect packaging under sometimes terrible conditions in developing economies

On the positive side, it is important to have companies on record committing to specific actions to eliminate problematic plastic packaging, reduce single-use packaging, develop reuse models, and acknowledge the need to protect informal sector workers in developing economies. The signatories will commit to tangible, measurable targets to reduce and replace plastic, underpinned by common definitions to ensure a unified approach.

Importantly, the commitment states that incineration, waste-to-energy, and plastic-to-fuel operations cannot be considered recycling or part of a circular economy, thwarting potential efforts to avoid genuine recycling solutions.

“A high quality of recycling and of recycled materials is essential in a circular economy, where one aim is to keep materials at their highest utility at all times,” the commitment states, adding “this maximizes the value retained in the economy, the range of possible applications for which the material can be used, and the number of possible future life-cycles.” We wholeheartedly agree. The prioritization of reduction and reuse strategies and need to grow the volume of recycling are also in alignment with key asks of As You Sow’s Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance, which will engage Nestle, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever this fall.

It’s too early to be able to assess the rigor of corporate commitments as few were released initially and it’s not clear when the commitments made to New Plastics Economy will be posted. Two companies who made new public commitments Monday were Johnson & Johnson and SC Johnson.

On the negative side, the text suffers from not endorsing or requiring some form of producer responsibility as a crucial policy tool for financing efforts to radically increase recycling of packaging, opting instead for weak phrasing that companies contribute towards packaging recycling. This is a big disappointment as it allows companies to continue to do nothing — or make largely symbolic voluntary one-time or sporadic contributions to groups doing the actual heavy lifting on recycling, while not providing a long-term, reliable stream of income needed to make the economics work.

Instead, governments, whose budgets are already stretched, are asked to facilitate self-sustaining funding mechanisms and provide enabling policies. That will be difficult in a political system where corporate money is so influential. For years, consumer goods and beverage trade associations have thwarted packaging producer responsibility legislation in the U.S. It’s great to see Coke and Pepsi as signatories, but these companies also continue to lobby against container deposit laws (“bottle bills”) in the U.S. that are the most effective proven way to increase recycling rates. They are also both members of the PLASTICS trade association which is fighting citizen efforts to clean up communities from the scourge of plastic bag waste and litter.

The Global Commitment promises annual reporting on progress. This is crucial to the credibility of the initiative as without strong transparency and reporting, companies will be able to backslide. We will have to wait and see how strong the procedures are in practice. The only threatened action for non-reporting is to be tossed from the initiative, which is unlikely to deter CEOs who decide to back out.

But overall the positive aspects and the potential they hold to increase recycling and reduce plastic use on a global scale outweighed our concerns.

Hopefully we are closer to a turning point where companies and consumers can agree on eliminating single-use plastic we don’t need like straws, cutlery, and cups, and those uses deemed essential are transformed into formats that are truly reusable, refillable, or recyclable and tied to systems that ensure they actually get reused, refilled, and recycled at scale — everywhere.

The Global Commitment represents a substantial advancement of global attention to plastic pollution by Corporate America, and a mainstreaming of actions pioneered by As You Sow back in 2014. We were the first group to engage large companies as investors on plastic pollution, the first to discuss the emerging crisis of ocean gyre plastic in the text of shareholder proposals, and the first to ask companies to make plastic packaging recyclable as a first step. We were also the first to succeed — with early commitments coming in 2014 from two consumer goods giants: Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, and more recently UnileverKraftHeinz, and Mondelez International.

The New Plastics Economy initiative launched its first report in January 2016 and began to work with companies to find ways to apply circular economy principles to plastics. By 2018, it received commitments from 11 large companies to make their packaging recyclable. With today’s action, the number increases to about 120 companies. Congratulations to Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy staff for the considerable effort needed to bring together more than 100 companies and 200 stakeholders overall. Now comes the hard part.

We look forward to an aggressive, disciplined effort by New Plastics Economy staff to implement the Global Commitment. We also look forward to working together where possible with consumer brands as investors, and continuing to nudge them toward better policies and practices when needed.

Conrad MacKerron