After World War II, the world experienced a plastics boom, with production growing at an exponential rate thanks to the material’s versatility and durability. Plastic touches nearly every aspect of our lives, from the materials used to construct buildings and homes, vehicles, and technology, to household products, clothing, and shoes. It is estimated that we have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic since this time, of which less than 10% is recycled. That’s where the plastic pollution problem comes in.
Many countries in the Global North turned to China to recycle their plastics, but ever since China changed its policy, the United States and many other countries are forced to find other avenues for taking care of their plastic waste and address the plastic pollution crisis back home.
Who is responsible for the crisis and what is being done?
Plastic pollution activists and coalitions have emphasized the responsibility that the world’s largest brands play in addressing this global crisis. Civil society members from more than 80 countries hosted brand audits through clean-ups during the #BrandAudit2019 initiative, calling on these brands to change their practices of manufacturing and selling products in single-use plastic packaging.
Some big brands have taken responsibility for their role in plastic pollution and have taken action. Coca-Cola announced its World Without Waste initiative with the goals to achieve 100% recycled packaging using 50% recycled materials, and by 2030 collect and recycle one bottle or can for every item sold. Unilever made a similar announcement, promising to cut its use of virgin plastics by 50%, and collecting and processing its plastic packaging.
One social enterprise is making it a little bit easier for big brands to shift their single-use plastic packaging practices. TerraCycle recently launched the Loop Store, a global circular shopping platform that allows customers to purchase products in zero waste packaging. Following the “milkman model”, products sold through the Loop Store are stored in reusable containers that are collected, washed, and reused again.
Innovations in tackling plastic pollution
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious project that aimed to collect the massive volume of plastic found in the oceans globally. At 2,000 feet in length, this plastic collection device has successfully collected plastic since its initial trials. Other entrepreneurs are developing products made from plant-based materials, such as utensils made from avocado seeds and creating faux leather using nopal, or producing products that do not require plastic packaging, in efforts to reduce our reliance on products made with plastic.
Consumers, recognizing the power they hold by their purchasing behaviors, are also raising their concerns with companies to change their practices. In a recent petition to Trader Joe’s, customers called on grocery chain to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging, garnering over 120,000 signatures. The company acknowledged this grassroots call for change, providing a status update since their announcement in late 2018.
Conclusions and the future for tackling plastic pollution
While there is hope hearing the world’s biggest brands acknowledge the role they play in and their plans for curbing plastic pollution, it is evident that is not enough. It takes more than a few companies to set green goals in order to move the needle forward. We need to continue holding big brands accountable, foster and support new ideas that open new horizons for plastic packaging and waste, and change our own behaviors to start addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.
Belinda C. Chiu is a public health professional and contributing writer at The Rising. She studied Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is passionate about climate advocacy, sustainable development, and zero waste. She is the founder of A Healthy Blueprint, a resource for individuals looking to reduce their environmental footprint. She serves as Associate on the Youth Engagement team at Women Deliver, a leading global advocacy organization for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women.