Is This Plastic Yours?

Coffee cups made of mushrooms. Häagen-Dazs in tins. Packaging and consumer goods companies are looking to clean up and replace plastic.

Five Figures to Consider

#1 brand in plastic pollution is Coca-Cola, according to a 42-country Greenpeace litter audit
10 rivers are the source of 90% of plastic ocean waste
$1.5 billion pledge by plastics and packaged goods makers to address plastic pollution
29 finalists in competition to replace the Starbucks and McDonald’s coffee cup
300 popular consumer products to be offered in refillable containers by Loop

Coca-Cola prides itself on being number one. Except when it comes to plastic pollution. Last year, the environmental activist group Greenpeace identified Coca-Cola as the number one polluting brand in its 2018 audit of 187,000 pieces of plastic litter in 42 countries. Coca-Cola litter, like the Coca-Cola brand, was nearly everywhere.  In 40 countries Coke-branded litter outnumbered all others. Coke is it! Greenpeace followed its audited clean-up with a social media campaign #IsThisYours, asking people to pick up plastic litter, photograph it, tag the brand and share the photo on social media. Who said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Greenpeace’s #IsThisYours campaign is just one effort among many led by consumers and NGOs that are putting pressure on companies to clean up and find alternatives to plastic. There’s the No Straw Please campaign, the Break Free From Plastic campaign, the UN’s #CleanSeas campaign, the My Little Plastic Footprint app, The Story of Stuff, Say No to Plastic Bags and many more. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, killing wildlife, swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and contaminating the fish and shellfish we eat. With our current infrastructure, we cannot recycle our way out of the problem. China doesn’t want our recyclable waste material any longer, and there are few alternatives. (See 5F’s Reduce, Reuse, China-Cycle.) Cities that once earned money selling their mixed plastic waste to China are now paying to have it landfilled.

Makers of plastics and packaged goods are getting the message. In January, 25 oil and gas (the raw material of plastic) companies and plastics manufacturers, including Dow, ExxonMobil and Shell, announced the formation of The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), which they will fund with up to $1.5 billion over the next five years. The group will focus on recycling infrastructure and clean-up primarily in Asia and Africa. (Ten rivers in Asia and two in Africa transport over 90% of the plastic waste in the ocean.) AEPW will partner with Renewology’s Renew Oceans division, which recently began a diversion project at the Ganges River, a source of 1.2 billion pounds of ocean waste annually. A similar venture, Project STOP, is partially funded by Nestle and Nova Chemicals, and is building a circular waste system in Muncar, Indonesia.

If plastics manufacturers don’t help find a solution to plastic waste, they fear they could lose customers. Already, Nestle, Unilever and Kraft Heinz have announced an intention to package their products in all recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025. Last year Coca-Cola announced its own plastic reduction program, ambitiously titled “World Without Waste.” In addition to supporting the development of new recycling infrastructure, Coke aims to use 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 and, importantly, 50% recycled content by 2030. Indeed, “recyclable” doesn’t matter if there is no market for the recycled material.

Restaurants want to ditch single-use plastic, too. Starbucks and McDonald’s recently teamed up to create the NextGen Cup Challenge, a design competition for a new, fully recoverable coffee cup to replace the current plastic-lined paper cup that is so infrequently recycled today. The twenty-nine finalists include cups made of grass, folding cups that eliminate the need for straws and lids, reusable cups and even the “Mushroom Cup,” which contains a dormant fungus inside its walls that breaks down the cup when it’s thrown away.

For those who don’t want to wait for a new generation of disposable packaging, TerraCycle has teamed up with brands including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Clorox, and Unilever, to sell 300 popular consumer products by subscription in reusable containers. TerraCycle announced the service, called Loop, at Davos this January. Customers in Paris and in the New York City area will be eligible for the pilot program that will deliver products like Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Pantene shampoo, Tropicana orange juice and Quaker cereal in glass, stainless steel or durable, plastic containers. UPS will deliver and later pick-up the containers for re-use. Unfortunately, this will likely be a luxury service as long as the price of plastic continues to be disconnected from the price of plastic pollution.

Sources

Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), Closed Loop Partners, Coca-Cola Company, National Geographic Society, StopOceanPlastics.com (Project STOP), SurfRider, TerraCycle, United Nations News, WasteDive