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Companies talk a lot about ending plastic pollution—but they’re not doing much to back it up

A new report ranks companies based on things like packaging design, reusable material use, and investment in recycling. The highest score is a B–. Many companies failed entirely.

Companies talk a lot about ending plastic pollution—but they’re not doing much to back it up
[Photo: pressdigital/iStock]
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For the past several years, the issue of plastic pollution—and how to fight it—has been a mainstay of corporate sustainability initiatives. But even as brands like Tide and Crest begin to experiment with reusable packaging, and as companies make pledges to improve packaging, no large companies are doing enough to solve the larger problem.

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Unilever scored highest out of the 50 large companies in a new report from the nonprofit As You Sow, but still only earned a grade of B–. PepsiCo, despite some experiments with packaging-free refill stations, earned a D+. Fifteen companies got failing grades, including Whole Foods, Tyson Foods, and Hershey’s.

[Image: courtesy As You Sow]

The report grades companies based on packaging design, how they use reusable packaging and recycled content, how well they disclose data, and how much they support improving recycling systems and laws like extended producer responsibility.

There has been some progress. A long list of companies have pledged to make their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Unilever has gone further, pledging to cut its total use of plastic. New reusable packaging platforms are gaining traction. Still, it’s too early to know if companies will reach their goals—and some companies have failed to follow through on past pledges. More importantly, the actions taken so far don’t go far enough, the report says. “The strongest examples are still relatively few given what we know about the size of the problem,” says report author Conrad MacKerron.

It’s time for the government to step in and require companies to change, MacKerron says. “We are way past the point where voluntary actions are sufficient.” A handful of large companies have contributed around $879 million to improve recycling infrastructure since 2014. But that’s 7% of the estimated $12 billion needed to make the system truly work. Right now, only around 32% of recyclable material is captured by curbside recycling.

If business continues as usual, plastic production will quadruple by 2050, while only a small fraction of that plastic ends up recycled. “There’s a huge 93% funding gap caused by literally thousands of free riders who have not made voluntary contributions,” he says. “Policy levels the playing field so that all companies are charged equitably to help pay for collection and recycling based on the volume of materials they place into commerce.”

The worst-performing companies won’t change if they don’t have to, he says. “Without laws mandating uniform changes in policies and practices that must be followed by all companies that put packaging on the market, most small companies can continue to hide behind the large brands, [which] are the focus of activist pressure. So a combination of consumer, activist, and progressive corporations agreeing on and working towards national policy reform is essential.” One potential move in that direction: The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act now in Congress, which would set up a national system for container deposits, create requirements for recycled material, and ban single-use plastic.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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