Editor’s note: As we continue to share stories of importance to the long-term well-being of people and our planet, we acknowledge the profound challenges the coronavirus pandemic poses today. We express our solidarity with all humanity and commit to using the lessons we learn through this crisis to help shape a more positive future together.

In September 2019, more than 72,000 people gathered at beaches, streets, offices and parks in 51 countries around the world. At nearly 500 different sites, they picked up plastic litter. Volunteers tallied the type of product, the variety of plastic and any brand names they could identify.

All together the participants, working with a coalition of groups called Break Free From Plastic, collected more than 475,000 bits and hunks of plastic trash. Results from these cleanups appeared a month later in a report published by Greenpeace Philippines.

Plastic is everywhere. It makes health care cleaner and safer, helps some disabled people live more independent lives, preserves safe and affordable food and — since it weighs less than many materials — can cut down globe-heating carbon emissions in transportation.

But plastic trash, too, is everywhere. While tiny microplastics permeate the world unseen, larger pieces litter once-pristine beaches, kill iconic ocean animals like sea turtles and undermine important ecosystem services, including tourism and fisheries — for a total marine economic impact of around US$8 billion each year. On land, plastic particles pollute soil, sneaking into food chains and leeching toxic chemicals into groundwater. Persisting in the environment, most plastics never really break down on their own.

Then there’s climate change. Most of the raw materials marshaled to make plastic are fossil fuels. Add in energy use for manufacturing, and plastic production alone accounts for 8% to 9% of oil and gas used worldwide. Disposal is a climate challenge, too. One report released last month analyzed plastic trash from four companies burned in six countries, which they found accounted for 4.6 million metric tons (5 million tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

Break Free From Plastic snapshots one sliver of this challenge. The group’s effort looks at litter and pollution — the never-ending endpoint of plastic’s long life — and the report acknowledges that its cleanup sites weren’t spread evenly over the globe.

Plastic waste litters beaches, kills ocean animals and undermines ecosystem services for a total marine economic impact of around US$8 billion each year. Photo by Bo Eide (Flickr/Creative Commons)

But among the many brands identified at those sites, those of three multinational corporations top the list: Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo. People buy products packaged in plastic, but businesses like these put those products on shelves in the first place. The other companies in the report’s top 10 are Mondelēz International, Unilever, Mars, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, Phillip Morris and Perfetti Van Melle.

Some of these companies have pledged to produce more recyclable plastic and cooperate with international efforts for sustainability. Other firms have been more mum. But as plastic keeps piling up around the world, prickly questions top the mounds of trash: Are these commitments genuine? Can voluntary moves by big business tackle the plastic problem?

And if not, what on Earth can we do?

Big Promises

According to a report from the World Economic Forum published in 2016, packaging is the biggest use of plastic, at 26% of the material’s volume worldwide.

Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo are among the more than 200 companies that have signed the voluntary New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which was launched in 2018 as a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Under the commitment, companies selling packaged goods promise that 100% of their plastic packaging will be “reusable, recyclable, or compostable” by 2025. Three other companies in Break Free From Plastic’s top 10 list — Unilever, Mars and Colgate-Palmolive — also signed on.

The commitment isn’t just a series of promises. It requires businesses to track their progress and report back. While the Ellen MacArthur Foundation did not independently confirm the numbers disclosed by signatories, Iulia Strat, a spokesperson for the foundation, says that its New Plastics Economy team “challenged companies on submitted information when it was unclear or incomplete.”

“This level of transparency on plastics has not been achieved previously,” Strat wrote in an email to Ensia.

These companies are making a lot of their packaging recyclable, according to the commitment’s latest progress report. PepsiCo, responsible for 2.3 million metric tons (2.5 million tons) of plastic packaging each year, reports that 77% of that packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. For Nestlé, that number is 65% of the annual 1.7 million metric tons (1.9 million tons) of plastic it uses to package products, including bottled water, chocolate bars and Purina pet food.

plastic bottles in store

According to the World Economic Forum, packaging is the biggest use of plastic, at 26% of the material’s volume worldwide. Photo © iStockphoto.com/97

These data are self-reported, though, and it’s not always clear exactly which part of a company’s product portfolio the published numbers apply to. In numbers disclosed to the New Plastics Economy team, Coca-Cola stated that 99% of its primary packaging is reusable, compostable or recyclable, a figure not meant to include transit packaging such as shrink films and later clarified to mean only PET plastic bottles.

Coca-Cola spokesperson Scott Leith said the company is preparing to assess and disclose numbers for non-bottle packaging, but did not provide a timeline for that disclosure. Coca-Cola, which Break Free From Plastic identified as the company whose plastic showed up the most in the environment, produces 3 million metric tons (3.3 million tons) of plastic PET bottles each year, making it the biggest plastic producer among the consumer goods companies that have signed the commitment.

Big Problems

Being recyclable is not the same thing as actually getting recycled. A 2017 study in the journal Science Advances estimated that just 9% of all plastics ever made have actually been recycled. The rest has been burned or, mostly, left to pile up in landfills, spill into soil and stream into seas.

As major signatories to the commitment make more of their packaging recyclable, they’re largely not using recycled material in their own production. Instead, when making bottles and wrappers and other packaging, these companies mostly rely on new plastics derived directly from fossil fuels. Per the commitment’s progress report, Coca-Cola’s plastic packaging contains 9% recycled content. For PepsiCo and Nestlé, that number is 3% and 2%, respectively. All three companies say they aim to use more recycled content over the next 5 to 10 years.

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to recycle plastic and get material that’s safe enough to hold food and drink. Most of the pieces of trash scooped up by Break Free From Plastic volunteers (at least of the chunks they could identify as a particular type of plastic) were polyethylene plastics, including the common polyethylene terephthalate (PET), with polypropylene — another plastic commonly used to package food — coming in a distant second place. While it’s possible to recycle polyethylene and polypropylene, special processing is necessary to ensure these materials are free from contaminants if they are to be used to store food. That comes with a cost.

“Some plastic suppliers are willing to invest in developing new processing capacity but are waiting for clear commitments from material buyers to do so,” a spokesperson for Nestlé who asked not to be identified wrote in an email to Ensia. In January, the company announced that it would spend 1.5 billion Swiss francs through 2025 to “pay a premium” for food-grade recycled plastics.

Nestlé’s pledge, the spokesperson wrote, “creates a business case for our suppliers and secures their investment. Recycling PP [polypropylene] and PE [polyethylene] becomes financially attractive.” Over the next five years, Nestlé says it will source up to 2 million metric tons (2.2 million tons) of food-grade recycled plastic. The company did not disclose to Ensia any of the plastic suppliers it plans to work with.

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment also calls for companies to ditch “unnecessary” plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse of plastic, although businesses aren’t held to any particular targets on those fronts.

“Signatories work to address the root causes of plastic pollution, and recognise that this vision will require significant effort and investment from both business and government,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Strat wrote to Ensia. “We need to go beyond increasing recycling capacity, and match those efforts with similar investment and ambition levels across the full range of solutions, including elimination and reuse.”

But even companies that have joined the commitment have no current plans to abandon plastic entirely. For example, in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Beatriz Perez, Coca-Cola’s head of communications, public affairs, sustainability and marketing assets, said the company will not move away from single-use plastic bottles because people like them.

Three of the top 10 companies identified by Break Free From Plastic have not signed on to the Commitment at all: P&G, Phillip Morris International and Perfetti van Melle.

P&G, an Ohio-based multinational that sells a range of consumer goods from Pampers diapers to Tide laundry detergent is pledging 100% reusable or recyclable packaging by 2030.

Neither Mentos-maker Perfetti Van Melle nor cigarette-seller Philip Morris have announced any specific targets for more sustainable plastic. In a statement to Ensia, Jens Rupp, head of environmental sustainability for Philip Morris International, highlighted the company’s environmental statement. Focusing on the actions of individual consumers, Rupp wrote that Philip Morris is “taking steps to reduce cigarette butt littering through ambitious anti-littering campaigns.”

The global market for plastic packaging isn’t on track to shrink, but is in fact set to grow by an average of nearly 4% each year through 2025.Perfetti Van Melle’s group communications director, Stephanie Creech, wrote in an email to Ensia that many of the company’s plastic containers are recyclable, encouraging customers to properly recycle them. “We continue to seek alternatives to plastic packaging while ensuring that we still deliver product freshness to our consumers,” she wrote.

PepsiCo, which has signed the commitment, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

Mondelēz International — whose brands include Honey Maid graham crackers, Chips Ahoy cookies and the candy Sour Patch Kids — had previously set its own goal of 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. The company signed the commitment in March 2020.

Government Efforts

Even with recent initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the world continues to make new plastic. Since 2010, petrochemical companies have invested some US$200 billion in plastic production, and one market research firm estimates that the global market for plastic packaging isn’t on track to shrink, but is in fact set to grow by an average of nearly 4% each year through 2025.

“At the same time as you have some countries and companies working towards this voluntary initiative, you also have companies lobbying against legislation to restrict packaging, and you also have massive investments still being made in the industrial complexes that create plastic,” says Elizabeth Kirk, a professor at the University of Lincoln who studies international law and marine governance. She says that voluntary commitments are not enough.

In the past year, some countries have moved to mandate plastic reduction. In March 2019, the European Union voted to phase in a ban on many single-use plastic items including cutlery, straws and stirrers. The law includes a provision that plastic bottles must be made of at least 25% recycled content by 2025. This January, China unveiled a new policy to phase in a ban on single-use plastic bags, straws and packaging over the next several years.

Around the world, countries, states and cities have enacted bans against various types of single-use plastics. Photo courtesy of Walmart from Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the United States, some individual cities and states have passed legislation to limit certain single-use plastics. At least one major company supports one of these efforts: In Maine, Nestlé Waters North America is supporting a bill that would set legal minimums for recycled content in plastic bottles. At the federal level, legislators in February introduced a bill that, if passed, would phase out some single-use plastics and raise the required recycled content in plastic beverage containers. Last year during a visit to an under-construction plastics plant in Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump blamed other countries for the ocean plastics problem. But in March, the Department of Energy announced up to $25 million in funding for research and development on plastics recycling.

A Global Challenge

Rich nations like the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia have shipped millions of tons of their plastic waste to Asia. China, once the destination for much of the plastic waste exported out of the U.S., severely restricted its waste imports in 2018. After that, the U.S. began channeling more plastic trash to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Last year the Basel Convention, a multilateral agreement governing international disposal and management of waste, was amended to include plastic waste. Under the new rules, countries seeking to export contaminated or unrecyclable plastic trash must get approval from the receiving country’s government before shipping the garbage to private disposal companies. The U.S. is not a party to the convention.

Plastics are ingrained in our society, so sustainability is no simple task.To address the global problem of plastic, Kirk says that we need a global treaty specifically dedicated to it. A “plastics convention” with binding commitments for countries that sign it might provide a framework for fighting marine pollution and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. She points to other environmental treaties as examples of this approach: The Stockholm Convention has successfully reduced persistent organic pollutants (POPs), while the Montreal Protocol facilitated worldwide regulation of aerosols and effectively saved the ozone layer. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has arguably been far less successful so far, but Kirk notes that it has probably helped bring more media attention to climate change.

“A treaty can also provide a signal to industry,” Kirk says. By phasing in global regulations, a plastics treaty could give companies the incentive to innovate more quickly.

But Kirk cautions that a treaty, like any plastics policy, would need mechanisms to account for particular uses and needs. Plastics are ingrained in our society, so sustainability is no simple task.

While many headlines point to strangled sea turtles and giant garbage patches, other harms fly more under the radar, including the fact that poor nations face the brunt of human impacts from the throwaway plastic of rich countries like the U.S.

At the same time, scientists have yet to make the major breakthroughs needed to replace conventional plastics. Plastics designed to be compostable or biodegradable often require special processing facilities, or at least particular natural environments such as warm waters, outside of which they’re often a persistent pollutant like conventional plastics. Plastics made at least in part from feedstock other than fossil fuels, meanwhile, might contribute to deforestation and other harmful land uses.

critical care device with plastic

With some uses literally a life-or-death matter, simply ditching plastics entirely is not an option. Photos © iStockphoto.com/sudok1

It’s not as simple as ditching plastics entirely, either — not without massive, systemic changes in the global economy. Plastic packaging, for example, helps keep food safe over the long distances inherent in today’s supply chains. Single-use plastics also enable lab research by scientists: petri dishes, pipettes, vials, gloves and more. Glass could likely take plastic’s place in some cases, but not without a difficult transition.

And people with some physical and cognitive disabilities rely on plastic products, according to Andrew Jenks, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Delaware. He co-authored a recent policy studies paper that urges decision makers to consider how societies can address the problems posed by plastics without putting responsibility on individual consumers, particularly disabled people.

Plastic straws, for example, are key in helping people with some physical and cognitive disabilities consume drinks and medicines, he says, while plastic food containers are essential for some disabled people to live independent lives.

“That is an issue that is in some ways not up to the choice of the individual consumer or user who has a disability,” Jenks says. “Because in reality, they’re just trying to survive.”

Survival is also at stake in healthcare, where plastics appear in gloves, syringes, sterilization wraps and many medical devices.

Recently, with the novel coronavirus spreading around the world, manufacturers are rushing to make more ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients — ventilators that use plastic in parts such as breathing tubes. In Italy, one company made headlines around the world when it used a 3D printer to produce plastic ventilator valves for a hospital that had run out of them.

Proposed solutions exist to up recycling in medical contexts, but it’s no simple task, with one estimate saying that plastics account for 25% of waste from hospitals.

As producers have made more and more plastic nearly every year since 1950 — with 381 million metric tons (420 million tons) created in 2015 — the material has shaped the world we know. Today, plastic is everywhere.

Tomorrow, if we choose, that might change. But such change will come with nuance and challenge. It will transform corporations and consumers, governments and citizens, producers and people.