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Reports Examine Corporate Progress on Tackling Plastic Pollution

New reports from As You Sow and WWF dig into action taking place around corporate commitments to eliminate plastic waste in their operations and environment — along with ways to effectively trudge forward.

On Wednesday, advocacy group As You Sow released a report — which analyzes the actions, or inactions, of 50 of the largest US consumer-facing companies to reduce plastic pollution. Waste and Opportunity 2020 concludes that, despite the dozens of corporate commitments and coalitions around eliminating excess packaging waste, companies have been far too slow in taking action.

The past few years have seen a growing wave of companies signing on to broad, cross-industry partnerships dedicated to eradicating plastic waste before it becomes pollution — such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which includes dozens of companies, representing 20 percent of all global plastic packaging production; along with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the Plastic Leak Project, and NextWave Plastics, whose member companies are developing a supply chain for ocean-bound plastics.

But despite the grand public pronouncements, there was little visibility into progress toward making them a reality — which prompted World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to launch ReSource: Plastics initiative, a first-of-its-kind platform to quantify corporate impact and track company actions and opportunities to reduce plastic waste, and hold them all to account in the process. Last week, Re:Source Plastics released its first impact report — which examines the plastic footprints of five Principal Members of the initiative (Keurig Dr Pepper, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks and The Coca-Cola Company), and digs into the challenges and potential solutions for tackling the plastic pollution problem.

Waste and Opportunity 2020 examines whether companies are, in fact, promoting reusability, recyclability, or compostability in their packaging; and moving toward circular models that prioritize absolute reduction. Company actions were analyzed and graded on six pillars of addressing the plastics crisis: packaging design, reusable packaging, recycled content, data disclosure, voluntary support for improving recycling systems, and mandated financial responsibility to improve those systems. 

As Conrad MacKerron, As You Sow’s SVP and lead author of the report, says, it “shows that the consumer goods industry is failing to address single-use plastics and take financial responsibility to improve recycling. We were unable to identify leadership companies, but rather found scattered leadership actions.”

Out of the 50 companies in the beverage, quick-service restaurant, consumer packaged goods, and retail sectors, the highest grade was a B- for Unilever — which, in October 2019, became the first consumer goods company to commit to an absolute reduction in plastics across its portfolio by 2025. Twelve companies received C grades (including all five ReSource: Plastics Principal Members), 22 received D grades, and 15 received F grades. As You Sow concludes that the high number of poor and failing grades reflects a lack of basic goal-setting, strategy, and planning which must be developed to effectively address the plastic pollution crisis.

In its inaugural year, ReSource: Plastic worked with its five Principal Members, as well as Thought Partners the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Ocean Conservancy, to establish a baseline of plastic use. Its inaugural report, Transparent 2020, largely supports As You Sow’s findings: Using the ReSource Footprint Tracker, an innovative methodology that follows the lifecycle of plastic to fill a critical measurement gap companies have needed to effectively advance plastic sustainability, the report found that its five Principal Members collectively used 4.2 million metric tons of plastic in one year — of which only 8 percent was sourced from recycled material. While these figures represent the need to address infrastructure challenges around increasing recycled plastic, they also point to the importance of collaboration and transparency, which are critical to enabling meaningful progress to address the systemic issues on plastic waste. The Principal Members hope these efforts will inspire other companies to take similar action.

"In its first year, ReSource has begun to tap into the massive potential that companies have to become key levers that can actually help change the course of this global problem — but also their willingness and ability to act together," said Sheila Bonini, SVP of private sector engagement at WWF. "Our Principal Members have shown an impressive dedication to transparency, providing data that will ultimately drive the accountability, collaboration and ambition needed to incentivize a movement toward comprehensive reporting and progress across the private sector."

ReSource: Plastics aims to enlist 100+ companies by 2030 in order to reach WWF’s ultimate goal of preventing at least 50 million metric tons of plastic waste from entering nature. With increased company membership, WWF says ReSource is positioned to fill critical data gaps, break down silos, and help companies use a common measurement framework to identify shared problems and opportunities to collaborate and accelerate solutions. Upon release of the report, WWF welcomed Amcor, Colgate-Palmolive and Kimberly-Clark as the newest members of ReSource; the NGO said it will continue working with the private sector to increase participation in order to close data gaps, and more effectively design and deliver on actionable strategies to address the global plastic waste crisis.

Both reports conclude that companies have a long way to go to transition from single-use plastics to reusable alternatives. And both organizations have presented key recommendations for how companies can most effectively and efficiently move to a circular economy for consumer packaging, and they're rather closely aligned. Read more here and here.

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