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Recycling is not enough to address the plastic crisis

Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Used plastics litter the landfills, infiltrate into the soil, float around in the ocean and are ingested by animals and humans. In short, our vast production, use, and irresponsible disposal of plastic is threatening human and environmental well-being. 

It is estimated that the production of plastics increased 174-fold between 1950 and 2017, and this is set to double again by 2040. Plastics may be hugely useful to humanity, but they are not biodegradable and therefore will persist in the environment ad infinitum. Statistics show that, as of 2015, around 79 percent of global plastic waste was in landfills or the natural environment, 12 percent was incinerated and nine percent was recycled.

Addressing the global problem of plastic pollution will require commitments from governments, industry, large and small business enterprises and civil society. Indeed, the public has begun to expect corporates to take responsibility for reducing plastic production, and many large companies have taken voluntary steps to incorporate more recycled plastics in their products, or to reduce plastic use, as a means of demonstrating environmental accountability. A recent study of the plastic reduction pledges made by the top 300 Fortune 500 companies has now been published in the journal One Earth, and the results show that these actions are not significantly addressing the plastics crisis.

The scientists searched through corporate reports, published between 2015 and 2020, in which the world’s largest companies made voluntary corporate commitments to reducing plastic pollution. The team also reviewed scientific literature, news articles and industry reports, that discussed the effectiveness of these voluntary corporate commitments. In addition, they categorized the actions proposed by the corporate players, the types of plastics targeted and the timeframes and measurable targets established. 

The experts, led by Zoie Taylor Diana of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, found that 72 percent of the top 300 Fortune 500 companies had made a commitment to reducing plastic pollution. “Most of the commitments emphasize plastic recycling and commonly target general plastics,” wrioe the researchers. “They are important, but partial solutions, if we are to comprehensively address the plastic pollution problem.”

The paper highlights that companies most commonly focus on changing their consumption and production patterns, often by using more recycled content in their product, or by “lightweighting” – the practice of marginally reducing the volume of plastic used to produce or package a particular product. Given the scales of production of some of these companies, shaving a small amount of plastic off a bottle or container can lead to a large reduction in overall plastic use. This has become part of an overall sustainability strategy for many brands, but it does not really take steps towards ending the problem of plastic pollution. 

For example, the researchers noted that the Coca-Cola Company is selling their product in lighter and smaller plastic bottles and improving recycling rates by investing in larger recycling facilities. PepsiCo increased the amount of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in bottles by 4 percent in 2015 and uses 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic in juice bottles. However, none of these approaches adequately addresses the issue of putting virgin plastic into circulation for single-use purposes.

“From our literature review, we found that multiple companies, such as the Coca-Cola Company and Walmart, are producing lighter and smaller plastic products (e.g., bottles and bags),” wrote the study authors. “This ‘lightweighting’ of plastic is considered an insufficient response because companies may reinvest this savings into markets that involve new plastic products and/or increase the total mass of plastic produced.” Because the number of plastic products increases each year, the use of this practice does not result in a net reduction.

The ideal solution would be to avoid single-use plastics altogether, and to develop other technologies and approaches to cut plastic out of the supply chain. Going forward, the authors say that the scientific community should continue to monitor the plastic practices of major companies and the effects that plastics are having on the planet. 

“Scientists (including natural, life, and social scientists) have an important role in monitoring and defining environmental issues, which may aid in holding companies accountable,” said the researchers.

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By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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