Businesses must act for nature in a world awash with plastic

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t has never been a more critical time for companies to understand incoming policy changes that disrupt the global plastics packaging value chain and prompt the search for new substitutes. Here we take a look at how business must play a pivotal role in protecting and preserving the world’s resources from plastic pollution.

Credit: @HelloI'mNik via Unsplash

Globally, we consume a plastic bottle every minute. 91% is not recycled; all of it originates from industry and consumer goods. The scientific debate on how long the material takes to biodegrade with estimates of 450 years to never. We have generated 9.2 billion tons of plastic waste since the 1950s. Our oceans will have more plastic waste by 2050.

The world produces 400 million tons of plastic every year. Three hundred million go directly into landfills, and 11 million washes into bodies of water annually. The UNEP estimates that plastic pollutants in water will triple by 2040. Plastics are mainly derived from hydrocarbons, connecting them to global warming C02 emissions.

Credit: Surfers Against Sewage

A new way forward

One hundred seventy-five nations agreed on Wednesday to reduce plastic pollution. The treaty has already been hailed as “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord” by UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen. So, how is this relevant to business and brands?

'Today’s historic agreement in Nairobi marks the beginning of the end for the epoch of single-use plastics. The plastic pollution crisis has continued to accelerate in recent years, reaching all corners of the planet, suffocating nature, wildlife and communities alike. International coordination and action on the full life-cycle of plastics, from production to disposal, is the only way to stop the rising tide of plastic pollution.'
Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage

What do the goals cover?

• Make packaging more sustainable

• Ramp up recycling (Only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled, per the UN Environment Programme.)

• Do something about microplastics, the insidious little plastic pieces that sneak into the water

• Limit the overall production of plastic

The treaty won't be finalised until 2024, but it will be legally binding whatever makes it to the final agreement.

So what are big brands doing?

The Recycling Partnership, a 2003 initiative, has signed up Target, Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup Co. and Coca-Cola. They have committed to using more recycled plastic in manufacturing and replacing virgin materials in pallets for transportation and storage boxes.

This type of initiative can help increase recycled materials and reduce the volume of plastic in landfills; they do little to stop the demand for virgin plastic for everything from fruit and vegetable packaging to large liquid containers. 

A few companies are venturing further. In one of the most aggressive corporate initiatives on record,  Evian—the French water giant—plans to use 100 percent recycled plastic bottles by 2025 in a one-foot-in-one-foot-out type strategy—a goal we at Penny Black will be following closely. Commendably, others are already looking beyond plastics. 

  • UK supermarket chain Iceland intends to eliminate single-use plastic packaging within five years. 
  • Home delivery companies like ThreeMain are already packaging their goods in aluminium bottles. If their competitors did the same much of the problem would be solved—more than 80 percent of plastics attributed to home cleaning. 
  • In 2021, toy giant Lego won the Times Innovation Of The Year award for their plastic brick constructed of bio-polyethene (bio-PE), made from sustainably sourced sugarcane. 

All well and good, but businesses can and must go much further.  

Stakeholders as climate activists 

Stakeholders are making sure of it. Coca-cola—the leading polluter of plastic waste globally—under mounting pressure from NGOs, has pledged to “collect and recycle 100 per cent of its packaging” by 2030.

Although Greenpeace replied that the company is still “dodging the main issue” as it increases plastic use across its supply chain. In 2018, 25 institutional investors with a combined portfolio of USD 1 trillion in assets called plastic pollution the most significant corporate brand risk and moved to engage FMCG companies to address the problem. They are starting with PepsiCo, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Activist shareholder non-profit ‘As You Sow’ have held McDonald's and Dunkin’ Donuts to account for their use of polystyrene cups.  

However, this doesn’t align with these companies' role in people’s lives from a brand perspective. It is counter to this, which diminishes the brand value over time. The key here is if you don't act, you will be left behind. 

Disclosure of material sustainability information

Materiality can help companies understand what they need to know in policy changes ahead. An initial benchmarking exercise uncovers where the business is and what might happen next. Finding the issues material to your company and brand can help you analyse the risks posed.

How can penny black help you align with all these confusing standards in an ever-changing landscape?

Creating a visual mapping exercise that allows stakeholders to hypothesise on which benchmarks might be relevant and rank these accordingly in terms of short, medium and long term strategies to address these issues. These will be industry themes and pressure points pertinent to your business. 

The process itself is bespoke and addresses the specific company's category and sector. 

In Summary

Will recycling alone be enough to stem the rising tide of plastic entering our oceans and landfills? Not at all. Systemic change must happen at source and an approach that reduces the use of virgin materials, the increased reuse of waste products and a much larger movement toward recycling. What is required is everyone from governments and companies to consumers to play a role. 

Only collective action can develop viable and sustainable substitutes for plastics. But as with all problems so large and complex, how do we—as businesses and brands—lead the change?