Multinational Companies Present False Solutions to the Plastic Pollution Crisis

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Companies tout their solutions to a problem decades in the making. Trying to find an easy way out by touting false promises is no solution.

Many multinational corporations have solutions to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, but are they really solutions? A new Greenpeace report looks at the solutions multinational corporations announce about tackling the plastic pollution crisis. These “solutions” include switching to paper, using bioplastics, and recycling.

Most of the plans by fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) to meet their goals concerning plastic packaging focus on “false solutions,” the report points out. The false solutions cited in the report include switching from plastic to other single-use packaging, the use of bioplastic, and investing in improving recycling and waste management.

The commitments by FMCGs are hollow, the report finds. No major FMCG has a commitment to reduce either the total volume or number of units of single-use packaging, or to make significant investments in developing reusable and refillable delivery systems. Only a handful of companies have disclosed their plastic footprint.

Switching from plastic to paper

A number of companies have made big announcements that they are switching packaging from plastic to paper. Examples include the announcement by McDonald’s and Starbucks that they are ditching plastic straws. McDonald’s announced last year that it would replace plastic straws in its U.K. locations with paper straws. In August 2019, the company admitted that they are not able to recycle the paper straws. “While the materials are recyclable, their current thickness makes it difficult for them to be processed by our waste solution providers, who also help us recycle our paper cups," a McDonald's spokesperson said.

Starbucks announced in spring 2019 that a “clear, recyclable lid that will soon replace more than a billion plastic straws each year.” That lid is made of plastic.

The rise of bioplastic

Some companies are switching from single-use plastics made from fossil fuels to bioplastics, which are often touted as being biodegradable or compostable. The Greenpeace report points out several problems with bioplastics. The first problem is that the world of bioplastics lacks a standardized definition. Bioplastics can include plastics that are labeled biodegradable, compostable, or made with some conventional plastic.

Another problem is that most bioplastics are derived from agricultural crops that compete with food crops, which increases land use and greenhouse gas emissions. The leading cause of deforestation and habitat destruction is the production of agricultural commodities.

There are other problems with bioplastics. Not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable. Even if bioplastic does break down, it may break down into small pieces, called microplastics, which animals can eat. Compostable bioplastic is generally designed to fully decompose in industrial composting facilities and not home composting systems. Not all areas have industrial composting facilities, which makes compostable bioplastics more likely to end up in landfills. Bioplastic manufacturing may even involve chemical additives similar to the ones used to make conventional plastic. As the report cautions, “Overall, a highly precautionary approach to industrially-processed bio-based plastic packaging should be taken.”

The rise of recycling

Both FMCG companies and plastic manufacturers promote recycling as the way to prevent plastic from ending up in landfills. Much of the plastic that is made is not recycled. Municipal recycling systems are simply not able to keep with all the plastic waste we generate. Some plastic packaging cannot be recycled, such as wrappers, sachets, pouches, shrink-wrap, and savory snack bags. Those kinds of packaging are just too complex for recycling facilities to handle them.

Although some countries are better than others at recycling plastics, “there are no countries where all plastic packaging is effectively recycled domestically,” according to the report. That means that plastics deemed as low-value either end up in landfills, burned in incinerators where they emit greenhouse gas emissions or thrown away into the environment.

Committing to reducing single-use packaging is the only real solution

The only real solution to the plastic pollution crisis is for FMCGs to commit to reducing single-use packaging. The report suggests taking the first step by eliminating “excessive” packaging like coffee capsules. Companies need to adopt plans to invest in ways to provide consumers with products in packaging that is reusable and refillable. Replacing only 20 percent of single-use packaging is worth an estimated $10 billion in value, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Now is the time for companies to take real action to address the plastic pollution crisis. As Greenpeace USA Senior Research Specialist Ivy Schlegel, who authored the report, said:

“To solve the plastic pollution crisis, companies need to rethink how products are delivered to consumers and invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems.”

What you can do

There is something you can do to make your voice heard to FMCG companies. Sign the Greenpeace petition which demands plastic polluters invest in reusable ways to deliver their products.