Consumers are increasingly told to recycle more, say ‘no’ to plastic straws, bring reusable bags and containers for shopping, and prevent food waste by buying local and composting scraps. With the new report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying that even if we were to make massive changes, we only have about twelve years to divert away from climate catastrophe, this narrative has only heightened.
But the idea that consumers are solely to blame for environmental degradation is a distraction. Just 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and most plastic pollution can be traced to 10 consumer product goods (CPG) firms. Producers of plastic packaging, 95 percent of which goes to waste after one use, continue to put out items that are largely unrecyclable municipally and tracked for landfilling or litter, paid for by consumers in the form of taxes and risks to public health.
Earlier this year, group of school girls in India collected all the food wrappers they generated during a two-week period. The students collected a whopping 20,244 wrappers, a majority of which could be attributed to two manufacturers in particular, and mailed the wrappers to the companies with a note:
“We are happy with the taste and quality of your products, but unhappy with the plastic packaging. We want to ensure a safe environment for our future generations and minimise our plastic footprint. We have decided to collect used plastic wrappers of your products and send them to you for safe disposal. Please help us savour your products without guilt, by introducing eco-friendly packaging.”
While no response from the companies has been reported yet, the campaign received significant press and cites fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies as responsible for the plastic waste created by their products. For consumers to publicly call for accelerated climate action from food and beverage manufacturers is a bold statement. As it is the role of business to address their demands, more and more producers are responding to the message and taking action.
For example, Walkers — the UK’s largest snack firm, owned by PepsiCo — is working with my company, TerraCycle, to launch the nation’s first-ever mail-in recycling program for crisp packets. Set to officially go live in December, the program will allow consumers to send any brand of crisp packaging, not just Walkers, back to us for recycling into new products. This will offer households, schools, businesses and individuals an easy-to-use solution for the category’s typically unrecyclable packaging in the UK.
With our fragmented global recycling and regulatory system, TerraCycle works with the world’s biggest companies, up-and-coming brands, and businesses and retailers in between to bring mail-in and drop-off recycling solutions to consumers in 21 countries. These programs integrate sustainability into packaging designs, an aspect that consumers are increasingly willing to switch brands or pay more for, shifting responsibility for packaging waste away from the consumer and back to the brand.
As we wait for governments to step in and incentivize environmentally preferable processes, consumers have been put in the position to demand better packaging options and end-of-life solutions for products, an onus taken up with passion and persistence. The brands that proactively hold themselves accountable for their production activities and packaging not only prevent backlash from conscious consumers, but establish themselves as leaders in the fight against climate action.