Published 1 year ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Robert Nagy
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
summit, which drew fierce
from climate activists.
over society’s ability to deal with the amount of plastic waste generated, these
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
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
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.
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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
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
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
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
Sustainable Brands® (SB).
She adds that certain sectors, such as the beverage industry, are “extremely
well positioned” to drive more circular solutions at
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
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
from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which accuses the
plastics industry of misleading the public over chemical recycling, stating it
is a “false
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
— 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.
Published Nov 23, 2022 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Maxine Perella is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk.