Op-Ed: Food Industry Giants Must Fix Their Plastic Pollution | Op-Ed: Plastic Recycling Has Failed. Food Companies Must Step Up

Op-Ed: Food Industry Giants Must Fix Their Plastic Pollution

McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other major brands are creating massive amounts of plastic waste. Their initiatives are not enough and they need to be held accountable for the plastics crisis.

Plastic bottles for recycling are seen at a junkshop on April 11, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Plastic bottles for recycling are seen at a junkshop on April 11, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Plastic has allowed many food industry giants to become the massive entities they are today. For example, Coca-Cola generates 3 million tons of plastic packaging a year; PepsiCo has been found to use nearly 2.3 billion tons of plastic each year for its bottles and packaging; and McDonald’s has been called out for generating the weight of “100 Eiffel Towers” worth of packaging waste.

It hasn’t always been this way. Plastic became the packaging material of choice in the mid-20th century, when it took over human imagination with its malleability, seeming ease of production, and strength. Its production increased threefold during WWII alone.

The political power of plastic also became palpable rather quickly with the emergence of plastic industry lobbying more than 30 years ago. Its primary function has been to fight laws designed to safeguard people and the planet from plastic’s well-documented toxicity. Plastic industry lobbyists also amped up their work as widespread concern grew about plastic’s presensce in the ocean, in animals, in farming systems, and in the human body.  And while the industry has always had grand plans of recycling its plastic waste, most plastic is not recycled today.

“Predictably, when we take a closer look at some of these initiatives, what we find is not much evidence of meaningful or sustained progress.”

This lobby’s political power was also present in the corridors of the United Nations recently, as the majority of the world’s countries negotiated a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution focused on production, design, use, and disposal. In this context, the industry has worked diligently to position itself as a solution to a crisis it has avariciously fueled.

Over the years, in addition to making unverifiable commitments to reduce the use of plastic and ensure more of its products are recycled, the industry has convened at platforms like the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, the World Economic Forum, Global Plastic Action Partnership, and the NextGen Consortium.

The industry has also judiciously crafted narratives about its commitment to solving this global emergency by supporting entities like the Ocean Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, and World Wildlife Fund’s ReSource.

Predictably, when we take a closer look at some of these initiatives, what we find is not much evidence of meaningful or sustained progress. In fact, recent investigations have found that many corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have been backing these initiatives while using more plastic than even before.

There is also a litany of corporate doublespeak on plastic in the media. Take the recent New York Times article by Boyan Slat titled, “Reducing Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans Is Simpler Than You Think.”

Slat is the founder of Ocean Cleanup, “a nonprofit funded by donations and a range of philanthropic partners with the mission to rid the oceans of plastic.” In the article, Slat claims his program has salvaged “more than 0.2 percent of the plastic in the [garbage] patch so far,” and mentions the need for stopping “more plastic from flowing into the oceans,” but conspicuously shies away from calling on Coca-Cola and his other program partners to stop producing plastic.

Instead, he writes that “meaningful reductions in plastic use will be difficult to achieve.” Slat also blames the lagging waste management systems in middle- and lower-income countries for the majority of ocean plastic pollution without recognizing that much of the plastic waste from the Global North is in fact being dumped in middle- and lower-income countries—such as Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

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He fails to recognize the fact that it is often “waste colonialism” that forces these nations to become what Slat calls “hot spots” of plastic pollution.

Corporations often tout the fact that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) New Plastics Economy Global Commitment reports on their plastic use. But if you dig deeper, the information it shares doesn’t provide much actual transparency.

For instance, its audit of PepsiCo says there is “no third-party verification or assurance in place.” Coca-Cola’s reporting on this portal yielded no concrete third-party reviewed progress, but more of the same—self reporting and more corporate marketing speech than evidence of verifiable progress. In fact, an analysis done by Oceana of the data from the 2022 progress report found that Coca-Cola increased its plastic packaging use by nearly 9 percent between 2020 and 2021, and PepsiCo increased its use of virgin plastic by 4.5 percent in 2021 compared with the previous year.

Another disturbing example of promises unkept comes from the world’s largest distributor of plastic toys, McDonald’s. It has publicly committed to “drastically reduce plastics in Happy Meal toys [including the latest toy, a replica of The Little Mermaid, a symbol of the ocean] around the globe and transition to more sustainable materials by the end of 2025.”

However, when some of the largest food and beverage corporations were surveyed by a conservation organization last year, McDonald’s emerged as one of only two whose “plastic intensity” was actually increasing. And then at the company’s annual meeting in May, McDonald’s faced investor scrutiny (p.101) for its staunch opposition to proposed EU plastic waste reduction laws.

The company distributes nearly 1 billion toys a year, every year. To its credit, it claims that in Japan it has recovered toys to make trays that can be equivalent to approximately 0.75 percent of its annual global toy distribution. The number of recycled toys for other countries where it operates, and there are nearly 100 of them, are difficult to find; it’s not clear whether they even exist.

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All these initiatives and commitments tell the true story of plastic. It is about time McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other food and beverage companies own up to their role in fueling the plastics crisis, by eliminating the use of plastic from their entire supply chains immediately. For more than 80 years, Coca-Cola mainly used glass and aluminum, so it can be done! It’s time for these companies to devise business models that stop exploiting the planet, its ecosystems, and the public to benefit a handful of shareholders.

These corporations also need to be held accountable by legal systems and democratic institutions across the world for their inaction.

Yes, the power of plastic has proven potent in changing the course of our history, but lest the world forget, so has the power of the people to determine our collective future. It’s about time food and beverage companies stopped jeopardizing the viability of future generations of all species to have a livable planet to call home.

Ashka Naik is a director of research and policy at Corporate Accountability. Her work focuses on strategic campaign development, corporate research, and equity-centered analysis of corporate power across issues that guide the vision and overall success of the campaigns. She also spearheads Corporate Accountability’s food program, which focuses on structural determinants and sociopolitical dimensions of food systems, nutrition, and public health, while uncovering industry’s influence in the policies and politics of global food security, sovereignty, and justice. Read more >

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