Since scientists first raised the alarm about plastic pollution in the environment, brands have been slow to respond. Will the 2020 Brand Audit and new plastic-stewardship guidelines help accelerate an overdue shift away from single-use plastic?
On December 3, #BreakFreeFromPlastic — a global coalition of organizations pushing brands to massively reduce single-use plastic, released its 2020 Brand Audit — which crowdsources data on plastic waste around the world to pinpoint which brands are responsible. The findings aren’t good — showing little progress by major brands as compared to previous years, and no evidence of any reduction in production of single-use plastic (not really a surprise, considering COVID).
But coalition members still expect brands to have led the charge on plastic reduction, despite short-term setbacks.
“It’s not surprising to see the same big brands on the podium as the world’s top plastic polluters for three years in a row,” said Abigail Aguilar, Plastics Campaign Regional Coordinator at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, during a press event. “To stop this mess and combat climate change, multinationals must end their addiction to single-use plastic packaging and move away from fossil fuels.”
This is disappointing. It was way back in 2016 and 2017 that plastic pollution gained awareness as a global problem, followed by an array of commitments by major plastic-using brands to address this problem. Yet, today, we’re still mostly on a business-as-usual trajectory,
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“A majority of these companies have made all kinds of commitments and statements — saying they will, for example, increase recycled content — but ... there’s been very little progress by companies to reduce plastic,” #BreakFreeFromPlastic global coordinator said Von Hernandez during the press event.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which launched its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in 2018, agrees — stating bluntly in its most recent update that there has been “limited progress” on increasingly recyclability, reducing the need for single-use packaging, or shifting towards reusable packaging. It is clear that, so far, commitments and public statements haven’t yet led to measurable, needed action. Too much plastic is still being produced and too much is ending up in the ocean.
While many brands need to take responsibility for failing to ensure that their products don’t end up as plastic pollution, others are dealing with real challenges in measuring action. Moreover, despite the broad range of commitments, there has been no framework for compliance — nor any incentive system to promote good actions, or even guidelines for reporting progress.
That will soon change. In early 2021, 3R Initiative, Quantis, EA and South Pole will release the Corporate Plastic Stewardship Guidelines, with a clear goal: to translate commitments into measurable action.
“These guidelines will enable companies to validate and communicate leadership efforts in measuring and reducing their plastic footprints, tackling plastic pollution and transitioning towards a circular economy,” said Grace Blackham — a program manager at BVRio, which is working with the 3R Initiative, during a virtual event on Dec. 1.
The guidelines were developed jointly, through a broad public consultation period, aiming to promote a circular economy for plastics and empower leaders within large companies to better measure actionable steps.
The guidelines include standards for measuring a company’s plastic footprint along their entire value chain, assessing recovery and leakage. It also allows them to track how they are increasing the use of recycled and recyclable materials in their packaging and measure investments in waste-aversion technologies in their operating regions. Companies will even be able to make data-backed claims that they are “net zero leakage” or “net circular plastic.”
There are even plastic credits, which companies can buy and sell — these are aimed at driving additional income to plastic recycling co-operatives and local communities that rely on manual waste collection.
“We’re developing a market-based approach that increases accountability for plastic waste reduction efforts around the world and incentivizes new activities that support the circular economy,” Blackham said.
The guidelines incorporate a waste hierarchy in which reusing waste and eliminating plastic are considered optimal actions, compared to recycling and collection. Collection, in fact, is only a viable action for companies selling products in regions that lack effective waste-management systems.
At the same time, the guidelines do not assume that reducing plastic is always the best solution. Sometimes moving to an alternative packaging material can have other environmental impacts, such as increased greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why it makes clear that science should be a key driver of those decisions, through tools such as life cycle analysis.
“It's not that black and white, and not always the case that options to eliminate plastic waste are better,” said Patrick Burgi, South Pole’s co-founder & Director of Innovation, said during Tuesday’s event. “There are trade-offs between different measures; and it’s important to use a science-based approach to properly assess different measures before implementing them.”
The draft guidelines are out, and the final ones will be released in early 2021. Then, brands can commit and begin to — in an open, collaborative and transparent process — act towards meeting their plastic-reduction and recycling goals. This is just the start, and there are hopes to turn the guidelines into something more concrete.
“We would like eventually to turn the guidelines into a standard, which will make them even more robust and will provide an extra layer of verification validation,” Blackham added.
It’s been years since scientists first raised the alarm about plastic pollution in the natural environment. Thus far, brands have been too slow to respond. With the release of the 2020 Brand Audit and these guidelines, there’s no longer any excuse to not shift away from single-use plastic and towards more sustainable packaging solutions.