Companies’ solutions to global plastic crisis miss the mark: Report

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  • A new report from Greenpeace contends that multinational consumer goods companies are addressing the global plastics crisis with “false solutions.”
  • Some of those solutions, the group says, harm the environment, such as the replacement of plastic straws with paper ones.
  • Others, such as bioplastics, amount to little more than greenwashing, the report’s author writes, as they don’t provide the purported benefits compared to conventional plastics.
  • Greenpeace argues for the phaseout of single-use packaging and investments in developing reusable containers that would substantially cut down on plastic waste.

A new report from the environmental organization Greenpeace warns that large companies are only deepening the world’s plastic crisis, even as they voice support for supposed solutions.

“Due to public concern about the plastic pollution crisis worldwide, we are witnessing a parade of corporations scrambling to look greener by putting forward false solutions to justify their addiction to single-use packaging,” Graham Forbes, a global project leader with Greenpeace USA, said in a statement.

Our plastic trash is swamping ecosystems around the world. Oceans, in particular, are bearing the brunt of our habit of tossing away the plastic wrappers, boxes and sleeves that hold our food and other goods. The World Economic Forum figures that, in the two minutes it’s taken to read the first paragraphs of this story, two truckloads of plastic have found their way into the world’s oceans. Once there, it snags unsuspecting marine life, releases harmful chemicals into the water, and splinters into tiny pieces that end up in our food and water sources.

Gannets trapped in a nest of plastic. Image by Engelberger via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

In response, the global companies that, according to Greenpeace, produce much of the waste that turns up on beaches and floats in the open ocean have looked for alternatives to the typical plastic that’s manufactured from fossil fuels. But the replacements fall short of the goal of cutting plastic waste, Greenpeace says, as trends show growing, not shrinking, demand for disposable packaging.

“Despite the increasing scientific understanding of the irreversible damage plastic can cause to our environment and communities, plastic production is projected to dramatically increase in the coming years,” Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA and the author of the Oct. 1 report, said in the statement.

Some companies have moved to replace plastic cups and straws with paper versions. But to Schlegel, that’s just swapping out one unacceptable material for another.

“Multinational consumer goods companies continue to promote so-called sustainable alternatives that would put unacceptable pressures on natural resources such as forests and agricultural land, which have already been overexploited,” she said.

Country-by-country waste generation in kilgrams per day. Image by Kaza et al., via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/igo/deed.en). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waste_generation_per_day_per_capita,_September_2018.jpg
Country-by-country waste generation in kilograms per day. Image by Kaza et al., 2018, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 igo).

Bioplastics are another touted replacement for traditional plastics, but so far, there’s no agreed-upon standard for what bioplastics are, Schlegel writes. It could mean that the base material is derived from plant material like corn or sugarcane instead of fossil fuels, but that’s not always the case. Manufacturers of other plastics in these categories claim they’re biodegradable or compostable, without specifying the sometimes unusual conditions — including high temperature and specific humidity levels — necessary to break them down.

Products labeled as recycled or recyclable might hide similarly involved processes necessary to convert them something usable. And China’s decision in 2018 to stop recycling plastic has meant that the U.S. and other Western countries now must grapple with what to do with all of the trash they produce, raising fears that much of it will end up in landfills or worse. According to Greenpeace, less than 10 percent of all of the plastic that’s ever been manufactured has been recycled.

Other solutions, like using chemicals to break down plastic trash or burning it to produce energy, come with their own suite of problems, the report says.

“Moving to bioplastic, paper, 100% ‘recyclable’ packaging, incineration and chemical recycling all but guarantee this environmental crisis will get worse,” Forbes said.

Microfiber plastics found in the ocean. Image by M.Danny25 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).
Microfiber plastics found in the ocean. Image by M.Danny25 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Cleaning up the world’s plastic problem will require a more fundamental shift by these companies, Greenpeace contends.

“To solve the plastic pollution crisis, companies need to rethink how products are delivered to consumers and invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems,” Schlegel said.

That strategy may mean using other materials that hold up better over time or don’t come with the issues that plastic or current replacements like paper present.

“We will only see real change when companies like Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, which profit from single-use models, end their expanding plastic use and invest heavily in systems that prioritize reuse,” Forbes said.

Banner image of plastic trash on a beach in Ghana by Muntaka Chasant via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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