Corporations’ Ambitions to Curb Plastic Vs. What They are Actually Doing

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

February 3, 2022

6 Min Read
ocean plastic

Business-to-consumer companies readily and openly commit to improving the recyclability of their packaging, as well as to increasing their recycled content; but few will commit to recovering these materials once consumers are done with them.  

Or these are among several findings of a report by Ubuntoo, based on a dive into commitments made by 176 global companies across 17 industries, with a few being beverage, cosmetics, apparel, and automotive.

Ubuntoo, who has a platform matching companies looking to be more sustainable with technology innovators offering solutions, published its “Plastic Promises” report to measure corporate ambition against what these enterprises are actually doing to reduce their plastic footprint.

The report also intends to provide a benchmarking system where they can measure their performance against others in their space.

Published in partnership with data analytics firm Brandscapes Worldwide, “Plastic Promises” reveals performance scores in four goal categories:

  • Commitment to virgin plastic reduction;

  • use of recycled content;

  • packaging recyclability; and

  • recovery/collection goals.

Both the stated ambitions and the action scores were combined to come up with overall ratings.

Among most notable findings: 

  • Of the top 10 plastic packaging sustainability leaders identified, only three are based in North America (Mars, PepsiCo, and SC Johnson);

  • packaging recyclability (44%) and virgin plastic reduction (44%) were the most common goals;

  • of 95 companies classified as high plastic users, 30 had no plastic sustainability goals; and

  • household products and beverage industries had the highest overall plastic packaging performance score.

The large number who committed to make their materials more recyclable was expected. But an equally high percentage embraced the goal of increasing recycled content, which raised eyebrows.

“Recyclability of packaging is in control of these [companies’] R&D design and supply chains, and something they have been working on for some time, so it was not a surprise. But to commit to recycled content, we would consider bold. It’s harder to achieve because companies do not control overall supply of recycled plastic material. That’s a function of market supply, technologies available, and policies,” says Venkatesh Kini, co-founder of Ubuntoo.

Few companies included in the report have gone further by prioritizing recovery of plastic waste left from their spent packaging. Not only did the majority have no commitment to collect 50% of their packaging; in many cases they had no recovery goals at all.

Admittedly, collection and recovery are the hardest tasks, as they require involved reverse logistics, which calls for working with the whole supply chain ecosystem –all the way to getting materials back from consumers at their homes, to retrieving from materials recovery facilities, landfills, or the environment.  

Further, says Haley Randolph, director of Operations for Ubuntoo, collection goals can be a tough reach because the process can involve retrieving spent materials from other countries with different systems.

“Even county by county, there are variations. It’s hard when you are involved in so many markets,” she says.

Ubuntoo weighted the goal of reducing virgin plastic most heavily, figuring using less in the first place will have the greatest impact on plastic pollution and reducing overall plastic footprint.  They saw companies work toward this target mainly by increasing recycled content, or light weighting their packaging.  Some of them are experimenting with new formats, like flex packaging to reduce the amount of material they use. Or they are looking at incorporating paper, though a challenge there is in developing protective barriers for products inside.

But the holy grail that companies are trying to crack is the reuse refill model. And where this model is not feasible, they are sometimes looking to reduce water content of the consumer product by concentrating it. (Think laundry detergent pods). Colgate-Palmolive's Softsoap is an example of combining the strategies of product concentration with reuse. The corporation makes soap tablets that not only are concentrated but are sold as refills for hand soap pumps.

While many companies are taking steps of one kind or another, the industries’ work is not fast enough or aggressive enough, Kini says.

“We believe there will be a need for more partnerships among companies across industries, between themselves and the value chain upstream and downstream. Upstream suppliers need to rethink and design packaging to not make waste to begin with. And downstream there needs to be recovery and recycling infrastructure to make it easier to recycle plastic and create more value for the downstream industry,” he says.

It boils down to that there needs to be economic incentive for everyone along the chain. The challenge is for companies to accomplish goals to address plastic waste without raising cost for consumers.

“It requires a lot of innovation and a certain amount of risk-taking and willingness to try new technologies and test innovative ways to design and deliver products requiring less or no packaging, Kini says.

There are thousands of solutions around the world at various stages, whether they are accessible now; in early stages of development in labs; or ready to launch.

But there’s a lot more work to do.

“For any new technology to gain acceptance and scale you need multiple experiments and large organizations with scale to help find markets and funding. We believe if more of this starts happening, then in the next few years we will see breakthroughs,” Kini says.

Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue, which works with manufacturers to help create a sustainable material economy, wants to see faster action too. Speaking of the report findings she says:

“It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was surprised by the high number of companies in the “slow going” quadrant of the action and ambition grid. The number of companies highlighted as sustainability leaders is much too small. We need more than a few such leaders to embrace change to create the momentum required to make a significant difference,” Goodrich says.

She pointed to the report’s focus on recovery, a less-than-traditional industry effort because it lies beyond what companies control but something she hopes will gain more momentum.

“Responsibility beyond what a company directly controls is becoming more common as the industry moves forward with sustainability. It’s becoming important in sustainable sourcing, agriculture, water, carbon intensity, and many other sustainability attributes,” she says.

Ubuntoo’s Kini and Randolph hope the company’s report will be a call to action and help guide companies in taking on the glut of plastic waste.

“You can only achieve something when you can measure your progress against what you are trying to achieve. We created the Plastic Promises report to help companies objectively measure the strength of their commitment and the rate at which they are progressing toward achievement of those commitments. As well as a way for them to  compare themselves with best in class in the industry – it kind of shows what’s possible.  Companies can look at the report and ask, what can we do better? And what are others doing that we can learn from?”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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