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Are companies taking plastic waste seriously?

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Our answer:

Policymakers, consumers, investors, and workers have grown significantly more aware of the mounting dangers of plastic pollution. The most prominent businesses in the world have recognized the growing brand, regulatory, and financial risks of irresponsible plastic use and pollution. Its intersection with fossil fuel pollution and clean water protection has made plastic waste a rising priority for corporate executives.

Is plastic waste a serious problem?

It’s a problem that’s only getting bigger. We are creating mountains of plastic each year that we can't find ways to recycle or decompose properly. It's clogging our oceans, animals, digestive systems, and even our blood.

Plastic production and waste have skyrocketed since the 1950s. It is estimated that up to 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean yearly - the equivalent of a garbage truck load’s worth every minute. Most plastic is designed for products used only once before being discarded, and more than a third is just for packaging - like food containers and bottles. As we’ve discussed, recycling is ineffective. The world's reliance on single-use plastics has led to severe environmental, social, economic, and health consequences.

The environmental impact of plastic waste is profound, particularly for our water supply and marine life. Half of all sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic, leading to starvation and negative impacts on their reproduction. Similarly, stomachs full of plastic kill more than a million birds annually. Plastics aggregate to form toxic environments, accelerate species extinction, and work their way into our food.

This peril isn't exclusive to marine life; humans are also at risk. It can take hundreds of years for plastics to decompose completely. Instead, they break down into tiny particles called microplastics, which migrate everywhere, attracting toxic materials, clogging waterways, exacerbating disease transmission, and navigating into our tap water, bloodstream, stomachs, and even our brains. Some studies estimate we consume up to a credit card's worth of plastic each year, with unknown health implications.

Who is responsible for the majority of plastic pollution?

Nearly all plastic is created using fossil fuels and refined into plastic by petrochemical companies. Roughly 100 companies produce 90% of all single-use plastic, and roughly 20 large companies account for half of all production. The top three leading contributors include ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sinopec. ExxonMobil has recently announced big plans to accelerate its plastic production. A significant portion of the financing for these plastic producers comes from just 20 global banks, with $30 billion in loans since 2011 from institutions like Barclays, HSBC, and Bank of America.

However, similarly to the global challenge of fossil fuel pollution, the problem isn’t just the producers. All of the massive corporate plastic consumers must also be held accountable. Big businesses must address and change how they manage their supply chains, package their products, and handle their waste.

Have politicians tried to manage plastic pollution?

Some US politicians have attempted to fight plastic pollution through legislative action, but progress has been limited. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023, initially introduced to Congress in 2020, is the latest proposed legislation aimed at addressing the escalating plastic pollution crisis. It includes enhanced measures for reducing plastic production and imposes financial responsibility on companies for their pollution. It offers more robust protections for communities near petrochemical facilities and sets more ambitious targets for companies to decrease their plastic output. The bill also proposes banning specific single-use plastics, establishing a national beverage bottle recycling program, increasing recycled content in plastic bottles, and imposing a temporary halt on new petrochemical facilities. It remains to be seen whether this legislation will move forward as it faces pushback from industry groups. The political battle isn’t much easier around the world.

What are businesses doing to address plastic pollution?

Public awareness of the plastic pollution crisis has grown significantly, increasing pressure on businesses from consumers, regulators, and investors. Companies perceived to be a source of plastic pollution face risks of reputational damage, lost sales, lawsuits, and investor activism. The state of New York is suing Pepsi for polluting a crucial water source, the first lawsuit of its kind. If found liable, Pepsi and other producers could lose their licenses to operate in various locations, threatening their entire business. While investors demand more plastic transparency at companies like Amazon and Costco, a broader coalition of major investors has taken against the world’s largest producers.

Companies have recognized the growing risks of plastic pollution and begun taking the initiative. Past commitments to plastic reduction have mostly fallen short. However, in October 2023, industry leaders and representatives met at the Future of Plastics and Packaging conference in Amsterdam to discuss these problems. The final call to action was clear: to move forward, the industry must embrace openness and honesty, addressing what isn't working to overcome stagnation and drive meaningful progress in tackling the plastic waste crisis.

Starbucks has launched initiatives to combat its image as a significant plastic polluter. The global coffee chain admits to distributing about 6 billion disposable cups and mugs worldwide each year, most of which end up in landfills or the environment. Now, Starbucks is switching to reusable cups and offering discounts to customers bringing their fillable containers. The coffee giant has also successfully piloted 100% reusable locations, with next-generation washing and refilling machines with drive-thru facilities, across more than 25 markets since 2021. The coffee giant aims to reduce waste by 50% by 2023.

Despite its bad reputation, Amazon has made significant strides in reducing plastic use across its massive supply chains in recent years. The e-commerce giant reported a 12% reduction in its plastic usage in 2022 by adopting paper-based packaging and committing to shipping products in their original containers. It replaced its blue and white, non-recyclable plastic mailers with more environmentally friendly and recyclable alternatives. Amazon has already completely removed plastic packaging at one of its pilot warehouses and plans to expand that model nationally.

One of the world’s largest plastic purveyors, Coca-Cola, has also succumbed to the pressure to change. The beverage giant has made a shift away from virgin plastic use, started making all of its bottles recyclable, and recently unveiled a new reuse program to encourage consumers to return and refill their beverage containers instead of disposing of them. It now offers bottles made from 100% recycled plastic in over 40 markets worldwide. Coca-Cola aims to make all its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025 and incorporate at least 50% recycled content in its plastic bottles by 2030.

What can we do to help the plastic pollution crisis?

Creating change at scale is possible. As individuals, we can’t move the needle on our own. But together, we can all contribute to making our planet a better place for the future with conscious choices. It starts with understanding the companies we support with our time and money.

Changing the minds of about 100 executives can shift the direction of our planet. Reading your scoops is the first part to understand which companies deserve your business and support. By raising our voices and aligning our dollars with our values, we can build the future we want to see.

Keep building,

The Scoop Team

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