Big Businesses Repackaging the Truth About Plastic Packaging
By K. Valley
My assignment was to find ten companies doing good in the world and encourage their actions to inspire other businesses.
Happily, there are many businesses trying to do right! And many have signed commitments proving their intent.
They’ve jumped on board with Greenpeace, WWF, As You Sow, and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).
Publicly they’re making all the right moves – showing us they’re full steam ahead to defeat their plastic waste.
The bottom line is unless they’re planning on eliminating or significantly reducing their plastic use, we’re screwed.
But the fact is ─ they’re not planning to rid themselves (or us) of using plastic.
Reducing Plastics ─ How Are They (and We) Doing?
Not well. Not at all.
Since 1990 when McDonald’s was urged on by young people to get rid of styrofoam from their restaurants, plastic in landfills has increased.
At the time of McDonald’s decision to eliminate styrofoam in 1990 plastic waste was at 13 million tons. By 2018 it had climbed to 35 million tons ─ the last year official figures were available.
2018 was also the year McDonald’s got rid of styrofoam from their stores. Kudos to McDonald’s.
They stuck to their commitment. They achieved their goal. But they also showed us how long it can take a business to meet its own goals and how difficult it is to achieve success.
Today, we have corporations, telling us they’re going to reduce or get rid of plastics. But what are they really doing?
Pepsico’s 8-year journey to increase their recycling rates suffered a setback. Instead of going up, their recycling rates fell 2% below the level where they started. Pepsico didn’t report this. Instead, they said they “helped“ recycle 425 million bottles and cans since 2001.”
Sounds impressive. But with context not so much. Those 425 million bottles and cans they recycled equaled one day of their sales. Out of one trillion bottles and cans sold over the same time.
Pepsico is one of the top three plastic waste polluters. For the third straight year.
In 2008, Starbucks committed to reducing the waste they “sent to landfills” by 50%. They also promised to cut one billion plastic straws yearly.
Reaching that target was hard to meet. So, in 2015 they dropped their goal to 5%. Then they announced a commitment to double their use of recyclables from 1.4% to 2.8% by 2022.
This is hard stuff to do! Covid-19 has only made it harder. Consumers are using more personal protective equipment and dumping it after a single-use. Our PPE goes straight to landfills. It’s contaminated waste and can’t be recycled.
Plastic ─ It’s Here To Stay
Plastic is in our waters and landfills. What we can’t recycle ─ we burn. There’s an inescapable fact; we can’t manage the plastics we produce.
One sensible solution is to reduce our use and manufacture of plastic. But that ain’t about to happen!
Plastic manufacturers are set to increase plastic production. Virgin (new) plastic production is going up from 300 million metric tons (MT) to 600 million MT’s a year by 2025.
McKinsey is a respected global consulting firm. They state the plastic industry intends to “quadruple production” by 2050.
National Public Radio (NPR) notes the industry is set to invest $25 billion supporting increased plastic production by 2025.
The plastic industry funded $1.5 billion to The Alliance to End Plastic Waste spread over ten years. A catchy straight to the point name – it’s the propaganda arm of the plastic industry.
The petro-chemical industry ─ aka Big Oil, aka the plastic industry ─ moves in not so mysterious ways!
$25 billion versus $1.5 billion shows where their priorities are.
It tells us ─ if we need another reminder ─ we should not rely on industry to solve a problem they literally create.
The US produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018 and recycled 8.5% or 3 million tons. Landfills, incinerators and waters are home to the rest.
Since 1960 plastics in US landfills increased from 390 thousand tons to 27 million tons in 2018. We have a global crisis in plastics waste:
Production is increasing
Plastics proliferate in our oceans and waterways
Microplastics ─ tiny sesame sized pieces of plastic – are the smallest size plastic breaks down to. They pass through our filtration systems and muck up our water.
Fish eat them. We eat fish.
These plastics contain BPA (Bisphenol A) a chemical known to cause infertility and cancer. You may recall the recent campaigns to ban BPA in plastics.
Too late. Microplastics are in our food and our bodies. They’re in the breast milk we feed our babies.
Is Recycling a Solution to Plastic Pollution?
No. To be precise, not on its own.
Today the US recycles 10% of it’s plastic compared to Europe’s 40%. Neither number is enough.
Recycling our way out of this disaster isn’t going to work. The recycling industry was never adequately developed in North America.
It’s labor intensive. Then there’s the incredible variety of plastics. Dark plastics, mixed plastics, contaminated plastics. They have to be sorted and separated.
It’s expensive. And remember we must always contain costs!
(Of course cost is only a consideration when it accrues to the business. The cost in lives is simply a by-product of ensuring a thriving economy.)
Recycling is more costly than sucking oil from the earth and turning it into new plastic. So who wants to pay more for something used? And of lesser quality?
Also, there was no point in developing the recycling industry in the US because China was available to buy our waste. In 2018 China slammed shut her doors.
Why? The simplest answer is they no longer wanted the world’s garbage.
Here we are in 2020 ─ manufacturers are pouring out new plastics and relying on others to clean up their mess.
Instead of legislation forcing industry to be responsible for yet another disaster of their making… We subsidize their business. We’re very generous.
Going Beyond the Status Quo
We, the public, do beach clean ups. We beg companies to reduce and remove dangerous packaging. We plead with our governments to protect us and our home.
And corporations sign agreements with government and organizations and do next to nothing.
The shareholder advocacy group, As You Sow, reported on corporate progress in reducing their plastic use.
Their report awarded Unilever the highest grade out of 50 companies committed to reducing their plastics waste.
Unilever pledged to:
● Invest in the waste industry
● Increase their use of recycled plastics
● Pay to collect their packaging
● Reduce their use of virgin (new) plastic by 50% by 2025
Despite this “success” As You Sow still found corporations moving “too slowly.”
But their signatures on paper look good. They get an ego boost in the press. And we endure the cancers and other illnesses they force on us.
As a side note ─ we then ask them to allow us to have the cancer medicines we need to fight the diseases they’ve given because it’s our bodies subsidizing their business.
Talk about a circular economy! But hey, remember, we’ve got to keep costs down. On one side anyway. Industry’s right to make money trumps our right to live.
Thirty years ago McDonald’s “led the way”. Today the situation has gotten worse.
Einstein noted the thinking used to get us ‘here’ isn’t the thinking needed to get us ‘there’.
Where is ‘there? What’s our end goal?
If one of our goals is the reduction of plastic we are losing.
UNEP and other organizations say we need a joint effort between business, governments, and the public to tackle the plastics tsunami. But business isn’t serious. And government seems willing to permit them to do as they please.
Petro-chemical producers – the industry – is increasing plastic production. Government is standing by content to watch us ─ the public shoulder the costs. We are moving in the wrong direction.
We the people are the ones repeatedly tasked with picking up the slack from industry. This leaves us short on resources and taking care of a mess not of our making.
Meanwhile, our tax dollars go to bailouts that keep these companies afloat in the name of employment. It’s really a vicious cycle that has us all stuck.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our tax dollars prevented the messes so that we wouldn’t have to do the job of cleaning up on top of our nine to five?
The public fights styrofoam, plastics, BPA’s, and toxic chemicals. Industry mimes working with us ─ ‘cos we’re all in this together! ─ while doing all they can to increase their profits. Their economy booms ─ we pay the price.
We’re playing ‘whack-a-mole’ (I know, it’s a gross analogy — but spot on!) and we’re losing. Badly. We’re exhausted fighting one issue after another.
We need to see through the few remaining trees and get to the heart of the fight. And that heart is injustice and inequality. We must hold business accountable. We must hold governments accountable.
We vote for the same governments ─ alternating between the Left and Right ─ hoping for a different outcome that never arrives.
Our goal should be working together across “causes” to eliminate inequality and injustice. We’re spread thin across too many problems.
“Social issues are environmental issues.” We’ve got to rip up their deceitful playbook and play by our own rules. The first one being, we must stop letting them divide us.
We are one planet and one people. It’s time to start acting that truth.
We keep dealing with the same types of problems because industry is absolutely committed to the same thinking. Their minds are on their profit, their ease, their comfort, and their bank balances over our lives.
54 million tons of plastic waste
New thinking is demanded. In the words of Robot from Lost in Space, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.”
We need to face facts and the danger that’s here head on.
● Corporations are polluting and not being held to account.
● Their partnerships with advocacy groups and governments are not reducing plastic production and pollution.
● Continuing this course of action means we’ll be worse off in another thirty years.
● Plastic waste is increasing at a dizzying speed. By 2048, we’ll have 54 million tons of plastic waste.
The Ellen McArthur foundation reports the “total weight of plastics in the world could exceed that of fish by 2050.”
We can’t afford to continue underwriting and supporting corporations while they feed us cancer and death.
Plastics are choking us today. From the microplastics found in our food and bodies to our oceans and landfills. There is no way to understate the problem. We’re racing to our demise.
My teens and their friends believe this is a good thing. They believe we’ve done so much damage it’s best if the planet resets. Without humans.
They may be right.
They walk out of schools. March in protests. Write to politicians and speak to governments. And our government fails to listen.
The US government joined with corporations to sign agreements vowing to end plastics on one side of the ledger. The other side of this transaction has industry doubling production.
As Spock says, “This is illogical.”
Growing up we learned the 3 R’s — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Reduce our demand, reuse what we have, and recycle the rest.
Doubling plastic production means the plastic industry has given up on “reduce.” And they’re only able to recycle a tiny fraction of what’s produced today.
Realistically, can we trust them to do better after they increase plastic production?
Recycling facilities don’t have the ability to handle today’s volume. And the secondary market for recycled plastics is almost non-existent.
So, what’s our next step? What can we do? Turns out, we can do a lot.
Reducing Plastics ─ A Way Forward
Whether it’s greenwashing as Greenpeace says, or taking control of their story — corporations are concerned about optics.
They crave the rewards doing good brings ─ along with any boost in customers. This gives us leverage.
Our job is to keep shining the light on them. Continue pressing them to be transparent. Our job is to speak the truth. Plainly. Loudly. Insistently. Consistently.
Our job is to make ourselves uncomfortable. Plastic is convenient. I get it.
● Choose reusable everything ─ bags, cutlery, packaging
● Choose to buy in bulk ─ great to have on hand in any pandemic
● Choose to walk away from that pretty packaging every-time
● Buy products that are made with at least 50% recyclable materials
● Let their pretty virgin packaging sit on the shelves
● Shop with local retailers who are actively trying to do right
Nothing we do might be perfect. That’s okay. Remember the start of this pandemic? Pollution went down. We weren’t out there buying as much as before. Driving as much.
Join with people to make change. Because if you were saving up for that rainy day. It’s pouring.
Business is doubling plastic production. We know that’s irresponsible and wrong. We can’t buy what they’re selling. Think it can’t be done? We did it during Covid. We stopped buying. Sales plummeted.
Reducing Plastic Is Possible — the Interconnected Web
If your ‘there’ is a world where equality and justice are the leaders. If it’s where compassion is always consulted. If it’s where we put people, animals, and our homes before profits. Then allowing corporations to game us has to stop.
Because in the real world ─ real costs matter.
A world where we focus on what’s best for All of us, not just on what’s best for a minority of shareholders is possible. And within our reach.
Environmentalist David Suzuki told us the world is an interconnected web. And so it is. I’m no fan of spiders, but webs are fascinating. Beautiful, delicate, and strong. Movement in one area impacts another. For good or bad.
Oceans, air, land, and creatures. We’re all part of the interconnected web. We’ve broken apart and believe we’re not the same. That’s never been true. Teach yourself to stop believing their lies. Stop drinking their kool-aid.
We know what happens when we drink the kool-aid. We’ve seen it time and time again.
We can change minds. Thirty years ago a group of kids got McDonald’s to stop using styrofoam. We’re in this together. And together is where we need to be to take down plastics waste and all the other issues we think are too big for us.
Kids are leading the charge again. Support them. Show up for them. We can do this.
Our work is to keep pushing – keep the pressure on ─ don’t accept their half-truths and lies.
Whether we’re fighting against social issues or environmental ones ─ our work is the same.
We’re fighting against injustice. We need to:
● Push companies to reduce their reliance on petrochemical products
● Push for elimination of drilling, fracking, and carbon extraction
● Advocate for living wages and fair treatment for people
● Refuse to allow our government to separate families and put children in cages
Our work is to fight against the greed that allows these injustices.
We must do this together. Join organizations and work for change ─ including change within those groups if they operate unjustly.
We must say “No” to injustice wherever it is.
Pollution, microplastics, and chemical contamination are all part of greed. They’re part of a system that believes it can do what it wants and doesn’t care what harm it causes.
A system that believes the only thing that matters is profit.
Life matters. If you believe life matters it’s time to do more.
Rip up their playbook. Forget all the garbage they’ve conditioned us to accept. Greed is not good. Greed has led us to exactly where we are. This is not a good place for us to be.
Innovative Ways to Stop Plastic Pollution
With all the listicles telling us how we can stop plastic pollution, form habits to do this and on and on ─ you’d think we’d have this solved already!
Ya, no. We’re still buying plastic bags, using straws, buying coffee cups and more. What gives?
We’re comfortable. We’re so comfortable, we’re accepting the way things are right now. The status quo.
To make change we need to change our minds. Creating change and doing more means getting uncomfortable with the way the world is today.
How do you get uncomfortable? If you’re reading this piece, you’re reaching out to get more information. That’s good. Keep going. Most likely, you’ll start to feel guilty and then you’ll want to stop.
Don’t. Guilt is good. Lean into it. It’s working to tell you something. Don’t be afraid of it ─ listen.
Too often we want to back away from what makes us feel bad. But those feels are our best friends.
They want our attention. Listen and examine what they’re saying. Examine what you learn. This is how you learn. I promise you’ll be glad you did. Being uncomfortable is something to embrace.
Then connect with a local organization. Again, it may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Do it anyway. Join with them to make change. Because doing this alone isn’t the best way forward.
We can and must increase the pressure on corporations to change. At the same time, we can form our own circular systems by supporting businesses built on values. Ones that coincide with our ethics, environmental responsibility, inclusiveness, and transparency.
Businesses that transparently put life first are the ones that should get our dollars.
And when you’re tempted to drink the kool-aid ─ remember an important truth. Building a business brings responsibility. Not considering its impacts on life, health, and the environment is irresponsible. It should be illegal.
Supporting corporations who refuse to get this is simply wrong.
We’re putting out their fires, picking up their garbage, and they’re bombarding us with more pollution than we can handle.
All the while asking us to tell them what good work they’re doing fighting the plastic pandemic.
Author Bio: Kay is a ghostwriter and narrator. She is a public speaker for corporations focusing on why Anti-Racism training and DEI doesn’t work. She hosts the new Podcast, Same Soup/Different Cracker examining systemic racism around the world.