Equilibrium & Sustainability

Corporate pledges to recycle aren’t leading to less plastic use: study

Corporate pledges to address plastic pollution are failing to yield sufficient reductions in the material’s use, a new study has found.

As public expectations for corporate accountability increase, more large companies are committing to decrease plastic use, according to the study, published on Friday in One Earth.

But these companies — among the world’s largest and most powerful corporations — are focusing on recycling, rather than reducing the use of virgin plastic materials, the authors found.

These circumstances, in turn, have made corporate commitments less meaningful, according to the researchers.

“Most of the commitments emphasize plastic recycling and commonly target general plastics,” wrote the authors, led by Zoie Taylor Diana, an environmental researcher at the Duke University Marine Laboratory.

“They are important, but partial, solutions if we are to comprehensively address the plastic pollution problem,” they added.

Diana and her colleagues focused on the top 300 Fortune 500 companies — finding that 72 percent had made a pledge to reduce plastic pollution in public reports.

But these firms have largely been working on changing their consumption and production patterns, typically by including more recycled content in their products, according to the study.

“There is a heavy focus on recycling and less attention is being paid to turning off the ‘’plastic tap’’ as the source,” the authors wrote.

Another practice common among large companies has involved “lightweighting” — or marginally decreasing the volume of plastic used to package a product, the authors explained.

“We found that multiple companies, such as the Coca-Cola Company and Walmart, are producing lighter and smaller plastic products,” the authors wrote, referring to items like bottles and bags.

When companies engage in lightweighting, they typically reinvest their savings into markets that include new plastic products, the researchers found.

Because the number of plastic products therefore increases each year, lightweighting does not result in a net reduction of plastic, according to the study.

From 1950 to 2017, plastic production surged 174-fold and is projected to double again by 2040, the authors noted.

As of 2015, about 79 percent of global plastic waste ended up in landfills or in the natural environment, while 12 percent was incinerated and 9 percent was recycled, per the study.

“Plastics in the environment have negative repercussions at all levels of biological organization,” the authors added.

In response to the study, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, said that the trade group “remains opposed to caps on plastic production for multiple reasons, particularly because plastics are essential to building a more sustainable and lower carbon future.”

Baca expressed the group’s support for evaluating both the effectiveness of voluntary corporate commitments and progress toward meeting these pledges. 

“America’s plastic makers continue to move toward achieving our goal of 100 percent of U.S. plastic packaging to be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040,” he added. 

—Updated at 2:27 p.m.

Tags plastic pollution plastics
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