Why Are 'Sustainable' Companies Supporting Plastic Bag Lobbyists Instead of Respecting Local Community Rights to Reduce Litter?

By Jan Dell, Conrad MacKerron, and Tim Smith

Americans throw away an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says the average bag takes up to 1,000 years to break down. Even then, the plastic remains in the environment and food chain. Plastic litter entering the marine environment has swelled to an estimated 8 million tons per year and as the world’s largest generator of waste, the U.S. contributes to that long-lasting pollution.  

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To effectively pursue their environmental and social responsibilities, more than 300 local governments have enacted plastic bag fees or single use bag bans. Local plastic bag fees and bans have been effective in reducing litter and taxpayer costs to clean it up.  

Walden Asset Management and As You Sow recently learned that state-wide preemption laws are prohibiting 70 million Americans in 10 states from enacting bag ordinances to reduce plastic litter in their communities, and that lobbyists are working to expand preemption laws in other states. The lobbying effort is led by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and its lobbying arm the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA). PLASTICS/APBA have used model legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council to preempt local laws on plastic bags and “auxiliary containers.”

While PLASTICS does not publicly share its full member list, a review of member committee lists posted on their website shows that many companies who are publicly committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR) values and have active CSR programs are members of PLASTICS.

A company’s membership in PLASTICS provides two types of support to plastic preemption lobbying efforts: financial (dues) and association with the company’s brand. As investors in many of the companies, Walden believes that membership in PLASTICS poses significant reputational and financial risks to companies because it contradicts the companies’ public environmental, social and governance (ESG) positions and is often in direct conflict with company advertising statements.  

Walden, in collaboration with As You Sow, wrote to the CEOs of nine companies arguing that membership in PLASTICS conflicts with the company’s publicly stated corporate values and requested that each company leverage its industry standing in PLASTICS to demand that it cease lobbying for state preemption laws. Walden stated that investors have a financial interest in maintaining strong share value and not alienating customers or employees through prohibition of the rights of local communities. A copy of the June 2018 edition of National Geographic magazine with the headline “Planet or Plastic” and a plastic bag iceberg on the cover was included with each letter.

Several of the companies have public commitments to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 14 Life Below Water. Support of preemption laws on bag ordinances is not consistent with SDG 14 which calls for conservation of oceans, seas and marine resources. In the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup, more than 757,000 plastic grocery bags were collected from beaches around the world in a single day. Preemption of local bag ordinances prohibits local communities from enacting proven approaches to reduce bag litter.

The following companies received letters from Walden: Becton Dickinson, Clorox, Coca-Cola, John Deere, ExxonMobil, Ford, General Motors, ITW, and PepsiCo. So far Walden received responses from two companies; Becton agreed to withdraw from PLASTICS, and ExxonMobil said it would remain a member and stated, “we do not support the banning of plastic bags.”

Based on the publicly available PLASTICS committee member lists, the following major companies are also members: ABB, Akzo Nobel, Alcoa, ASCENA (Ann Taylor Stores), BASF, Carlyle Group (Novolex), ChevronPhillips Chemical, DowDuPont, Eastman Chemical, Ecolab, LyondellBassell, Milliken, Mitsubishi Chemical, Newell Rubbermaid, Schneider Electric (Eurotherm), SC Johnson, Sealed Air, Sherwin Williams, Chemours, Toyota North America, and UL. These companies also have publicly-stated values and corporate policies that are in direct conflict with lobbying for plastic bag preemption laws.

It is time for these companies to take a stand for the rights of local communities to protect and preserve their environment. Continued acquiescence to PLASTICS’ lobbying to block bag ordinances conflicts with the stated goals and programs of companies to reduce plastic pollution.

Jan Dell is an independent engineer and author of The Last Beach Cleanup (to be published in 2019). Jan has worked with global companies in diverse industries to implement sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in their operations. Tim Smith is director of ESG Shareowner Engagement at Walden Asset Management. Conrad MacKerron is senior vice president at As You Sow.