Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Brand Blind Spots, Empty Promises Hindering Effective Action Against Plastic Pollution

As seen in ongoing incidents of greenwashing and a new Greenpeace report, the onus is on consumer product manufacturers to take more comprehensive approaches to stemming their flow of plastic into the world — and turning the tide of public opinion.

Given plastic remains one of the key drivers of global pollution, it’s little wonder that public scrutiny around the issue remains high — particularly when it comes to brand commitment and action in this space. Just take Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the recent COP27 summit, which drew fierce criticism from climate activists.

As concerns grow over society’s ability to deal with the amount of plastic waste generated, these type of greenwashing accusations are likely to grow in intensity — and that represents a real risk to brands, especially those deemed to be heavy producers of single-use plastics.

This is especially true in places like the US — which has recently been called out by campaign groups for its poor performance on plastics recycling and lack of market/policy drivers that could help drive more circular solutions for plastic waste. Last month, Greenpeace USA’s Circular Claims Fall Flat Again report highlighted some of the systemic problems associated with plastic recycling while pointing out that global plastic use and waste is projected to almost triple by 2060.

One of the key concerns is that US recycling rates for plastic seem to be falling. The report estimates it to have declined to about 5-6 percent in 2021 — down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014 and 8.7 percent in 2018, when the US exported a significant amount of plastic waste to China. It suggests that, faced with having to deal with more of these materials domestically, the country is struggling to push plastics up the waste hierarchy.

Greenpeace argues that one of the main reasons for this is that no type of plastic packaging in the US meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative. To qualify, an item must have a 30 percent recycling rate to receive the “recyclable” classification. The report states that two of the most common plastics often considered recyclable in the US — PET #1 and HDPE #2 (typically, bottles and jugs) — fall well below this threshold, only achieving reprocessing rates of 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively.

The study claims that mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed in the US, and points to other system limitations — including a lack of effective collection and processing infrastructure, and unfavorable market economics. Ultimately, the NGO is calling on brands to step up efforts to phase out single-use plastics — particularly in their packaging and products — and switch to reuse/refill systems and packaging-free approaches.

“Companies know that plastics recycling has not, and never will, solve the plastic waste crisis that they have helped create — which is why they must focus on reduction and switching to systems of refill and reuse,” Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner Lisa Ramsden tells Sustainable Brands® (SB).

She adds that certain sectors, such as the beverage industry, are “extremely well positioned” to drive more circular solutions at scale and should set more ambitious targets for adopting reusable and refillable packaging. Committing to collaborating with others to standardize reusable packaging and build shared reuse systems and infrastructure would also help.

“Systems of refill and reuse for beverages are not new and are still used throughout the world,” she says. “In the US, we used to have milk delivered by the milkman in glass, reusable bottles. You used to be able to buy a Coca-Cola in a glass bottle, enjoy the beverage; and then, return it to be sanitized and refilled.”

Going forward, brands may well find it harder to push convincing recycling messages as the actual technologies and processes involved come under greater scrutiny. Greenpeace’s report follows an earlier study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which accuses the plastics industry of misleading the public over chemical recycling, stating it is a “false solution” to the plastic waste crisis. In its study, the NRDC reviewed eight selected US chemical-recycling facilities and concluded that the majority weren’t recycling any plastic.

“The term ‘chemical recycling’ encompasses many processes that fall into two categories: plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-chemical components,” it notes, adding that producing fuel from plastic waste — which it says is the more common approach in the US — “does not qualify as recycling by international standards.”

The NRDC says that these types of facilities can generate air pollutants and large amounts of hazardous waste, and is calling for stronger regulatory safeguards to maintain health protections. Like Greenpeace, it also wants to see policies that reduce plastic production and waste, and see the phasing out of single-use plastics and the scale-up of reuse-and-refill models.

Asked what practical steps brands can take if they want to engage in a more responsible approach to dealing with plastic waste, NRDC senior scientist Veena Singla tells SB: “Put priority on the top of the waste-management hierarchy — first and foremost, look for opportunities to prevent waste; then, reduce it. For example, are there packaging components that you could eliminate with a redesign? Design for the reality of our existing infrastructure and use materials that are currently recycled — and eliminate materials that are not.”

Sarah Edwards, US director at Eunomia Research & Consulting, says that one of the primary drivers for increased interest in chemical recycling is the demand for recycled PE and PP for use in food-contact and sensitive-use applications such as cosmetics and pharma. As these facilities have specific input requirements, they cannot take all plastics.

“Chemical recycling is just one potential tool, but one that still needs to be proven at scale to deliver plastic-to-plastic recycling,” she tells SB*.*

She adds that plastic packaging is complex and so requires different collection, sorting and recycling processes/systems; but says the US can learn from what other countries are doing — particularly in regard to extended producer responsibility (EPR).

“While we are seeing the emergence of EPR and recycled content policy in the US, these bills are not quite hitting the mark. They are failing to consider the effectiveness of a deposit system for beverage working alongside a wider EPR program to support curbside and depot collection systems; and many bills do not have any recycling or reuse rates or dates, or mechanisms by which they will be calculated,” she says.

Companies also need to be consistent when it comes to EPR policy across the markets they serve. For example, Edwards says that some beverage brands openly support deposit return systems in Europe while not taking the same approach in the US. She also believes while many are very aware of the challenge they face in reducing the impact of plastics, some may not have realized the scale of the task in front of them, particularly the level of investment required to enable their packaging to be successfully recycled or composted.

“It’s encouraging that many brands are making investment in R&D and innovation, as well as in infrastructure. However individual action is never as effective as collective action and this is where policy is essential,” she says.

Notable developments in this respect include the UN Plastics Treaty, which is putting increasing pressure on both businesses and governments. Edwards hopes this will act as a driver for better policy and accountability, while Singla points to the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability — which encourages the development of better, safer materials (including plastics) as part of a circular economy.

Ultimately, however, it will be up to brands to best decide how to best overcome the continued concern NGOs and consumers have around some of the claims they are making on tackling plastic pollution.

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