The Alliance to End Plastic Waste says it will spend at least $1 billion to keep plastic waste out of the environment. But its members–like ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow–are undermining the commitment by ramping up their own plastic production. “We do need more recycling infrastructure as part of the solution,” says Graham Forbes, the global plastic leader at Greenpeace. “But when you look at the facts, the companies sitting around the table committing $1 billion largely to collect plastic waste are at the same time part of an almost $200 billion investment in increasing petrochemical production. The numbers just don’t match up.”
In Southeast Asia, as one part of the plan, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste will help cities build badly-needed new recycling infrastructure. But most of the companies that are funding the new effort, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste–a group of 30 corporations that includes ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, and others in the oil and gas and plastics industries–are simultaneously planning to increase their own plastic production.
Shell, for example, which is planning for a future with more electric cars, expects that growing demand for plastic will help keep fossil fuels relevant. It’s currently building a multibillion-dollar plant to turn petrochemicals into polyethylene, a polymer used to make everything from water bottles to children’s toys. ExxonMobil, similarly, is building a new production line at another polyethylene plant. Plastic production is expected to grow 40% over the next decade because of these and other new projects.
[Image: Daniel Salo (Illustration), tastykle3d/Blendswap (mesh)]
The new nonprofit plans to support recycling infrastructure in the places where plastic is most likely to “leak” into rivers and the ocean, and will support Renew Oceans, a project that works to capture plastic before it reaches the ocean. It also will help fund the Incubator Network by Circulate Capital, an investment management firm that invests in startups that prevent ocean plastic. All of these are worthwhile pursuits. But the oil and plastic companies behind the project are missing a key part of the bigger problem: If we’re struggling to deal with plastic waste now, how much worse will things become when the amount of new plastic radically grows? How can companies stop making so much plastic in the first place? As recycling increases, how will their business models change?
In 2018, another group of corporations made a broader commitment: PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and dozens of others pledged to eliminate problematic plastic packaging; switch to reuse models when appropriate; make all of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025; make sure that packaging actually is reused, recycled, or composted; decouple plastic from finite resources like oil; and eliminate hazardous chemicals and protect the health of workers making plastic. Procter & Gamble, notably, didn’t make this pledge, called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, but instead joined the oil and plastic companies in the new alliance.
It’s possible that the new nonprofit could help reduce plastic in some small way. Circulate Capital, one of the beneficiaries, is “looking to invest in all sorts of solutions,” says Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of the firm. “Waste and recycling is by far the most developed and investable today. But one of the reasons we created our incubation network program is to look at other business models for reduction or reuse or alternative delivery models that could become investable someday. Our view is there’s no silver bullet to solving this problem, and you’re going to need recycling, reduction, reuse, regulation–no single agenda will solve this.” A spokesperson for the Alliance to End Plastic Waste said that the alliance “will rethink how we design certain products to make them more efficient while improving recyclability.”
Reduction, though, isn’t a primary focus of the project. It’s consistent with the stance that industry has taken in the past, says Forbes. “I think if you look historically, this industry, for really the past four or five decades, has really sort of put forward this notion that if we just recycle our way out of things and we make things recyclable, that will [solve the problem],” he says. “It really reinforces this notion that consumers and end users are responsible for what these companies produce.”Now, he says, more enlightened companies are realizing that’s not enough.
“Companies for the first time are acknowledging, a) that we can’t recycle our way out of this crisis, and b) that reduction needs to be an important part of the conversation,” he says. “What we’re really looking for is this movement away from single-use delivery models and putting much more emphasis on reuse, reusability, and going beyond just the material, and looking at a more fundamental shift in how business models operate.”
In an unprecedented move last December, Bali Governor Wayan Koster introduced an all-encompassing ban against single-use plastic, including plastic bags, Styrofoam and straws, though some remain skeptical on the effectiveness of the policy in mitigating the devastating impact of plastic waste.
Retailers in the city of Denpasar have already adopted the rule, which will enter into force across the whole island of Bali following a six-month grace period with an ambitious target of cutting marine plastic pollution by 70% within 12 months.
It is a milestone achievement for local activists such as Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a youth-driven movement by teenagers Isabel and Melati Wijsen, whose campaign against single-use plastic resulted in the governor signing a Memorandum of Understanding to ban plastic bags by the end of 2018.
An estimated 80% of the popular holiday destination’s trash is thought to originate from the island itself because of careless littering by tourists and locals alike, as well as the enormous environmental footprint of the hospitality industry.
The new regulation follows in the footsteps of decrees issued in Banjarmasin and Balikpapan in Indonesia’s Kalimantan territory as well as Bogor in West Java that banned the use of plastic bags, while Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, which accounts for approximately 20-30% of the country’s plastic waste, is preparing to introduce a similar rule in 2019.
Critics warn, however, that these government policies only provide a surface solution to the fundamental issue of waste mismanagement in the country.
Indonesia’s plastic problem
Indonesia produces 3.22 million tons of plastic waste every year, making it the world’s second largest plastic polluter after China.
Of this amount, an estimated 0.48-1.29 million tons end up forming giant plastic garbage patches in the sea, despite the government’s ambitious plan to cut ocean plastic by 70% by 2025. Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, committed a generous USD1 billion a year to reach this target at the 2017 World Oceans Summit in Bali.
According to figures by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2016, Indonesians use an estimated 9.8 billion plastic bags per annum. In addition, research by Divers Clean Action found that 93.2 million plastic straws are consumed every day on the archipelago – each straw can take up to 200 years to decompose completely.
In 2016, Jakarta imposed an IDR 200 (approx. $0.01) tax on plastic bags, but following the completion of the 3-month pilot, retailers refused to continue the initiative despite an estimated 55% reduction in plastic waste during the project’s short duration.
A proposal to introduce a permanent excise tax on plastic producers instead has since been postponed till 2019 despite claims by the Ministry of Finance that the tax would generate IDR 500 billion ($34.5 million) in revenue.
Do plastic bans offer a cure-all?
Industry representatives, including the Indonesian Olefin, Aromatic and Plastic Industry Association, advise that instead of targeting consumers and sanctioning the use of plastic, the focus should shift to improving industrial waste management in the country.
81% of Indonesia’s plastic waste is mismanaged, meaning they are disposed in dumps and in open, uncontrolled landfills, and run a higher risk of contaminating the oceans.
Indonesia lacks adequate infrastructure for waste management and the sector is severely underfunded – weekly waste collection services that are taken for granted in other parts of the world are a foreign concept in the country. Recycling is a predominantly informal sector activity with formal recycling systems capturing less than 5% of the country’s waste.
In addition, taxing or banning plastic bags specifically is no panacea to the scourge of plastic waste. The majority of marine plastic debris – a whopping 70% – comes from food and beverage packaging. Plastic packaging, including food wraps and sauce sachets, for instance, are so small that they often escape collection, and end up on beaches, in rivers and in oceans.
Photo credit: The Plastic Bank
Pioneering trash banks
Social enterprises such as Waste4Change, which offers end-to-end waste management services, or the Plastic Bank, a Canadian venture which has recently launched its blockchain-powered app to help scavengers recycle and monetize plastic waste in Indonesia, are thus taking on the challenge of creating a more responsible waste management ecosystem.
In partnership with SC Johnson, the Plastic Bank will open 8 recycling centers across the archipelago by May 2019, and pays above the market rate to waste pickers for the collected trash to incentivize them to become recycling champions, while earning a sustainable livelihood.
Similarly to the Plastic Bank, Bank Sampah, which translates as ‘waste bank’, provides a grassroots solution for more sustainable waste collection. Modeled on traditional banking services, households and waste pickers deposit their non-organic waste in a neighborhood trash bank (some also accept organic waste, while others encourage composting at home), which is then sold to factories for reuse or recycling. Deposits are weighed and given a monetary value, which can be withdrawn in cash form after deducting a fee to cover the overhead costs of the waste bank.
Making eco-friendly packaging available to all
Avani produces eco-friendly packaging ranging from shopping bags and F&B packaging to hotel amenities from cassava, a tropical root that’s cheap and ubiquitous in the Asian archipelago. Cassava bags biodegrade in a matter of months in contrast to plastic, which takes years to decompose, and dissolve almost instantaneously when placed in hot water.
They also sell bio-ponchos, made out of corn, soy and sunflower seeds, and bio-boxes made out of bagasse, a dry residue left from the extraction of sugar cane juice.
Seaweed to see an end to plastic packaging
Ello Jello cup / Photo credit: Evoware
Evoware partners with local seaweed farmers to help them produce higher quality seaweed, which is used to make seaweed-based edible cups. Ello Jello tastes like jelly, is free from chemicals, can easily dissolve without harming the environment and has a two-year shelf life without the use of preservatives.
Indonesia produces 10 million tons of seaweed each year with plans for production to almost double by 2020, resulting in a massive oversupply that remains unsold. In addition, seaweed farmers grapple with long marketing chains and exploitation by loan sharks. To tackle rampant poverty in these communities, Evoware teaches farmers sustainable farming methods, offers them a new source of income and pays them twice for what they would normally get for their produce.
The socially and environmentally conscious venture’s product line also includes an edible food wrap and a biodegradable sachet that’s suitable to store spices, cereal, coffee powder or even soap, and acts as a natural plant fertilizer.
When you throw your food’s plastic packaging into a blue bin you probably don’t expect it to be exported across the world to be dumped or burned. But that’s exactly what could happen. And much of this plastic waste comes from Canadian grocery stores.
Exclusive images provided by Greenpeace show mountains of plastic packaging dumped next to palm plantations, near waterways and burned on the roadside in industrial areas to the south of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia imports plastic waste from all over the world, including Canada. Much of it is recycled, but some of the materials may be discarded due to poor quality, contamination or degradation from being improperly stored outside in the tropical climate.
Among the piles were pieces of plastic that came from Canadian grocery stores including a bag from Sobeys, a milk bag from Nova Scotia dairy Scotsburn and a burger bun bag from Ben’s Bakery.
Despite being the source of a huge amount of plastic packaging, Loblaws and Sobeys, the two largest Canadian-owned supermarket chains, don’t have targets — or at least none they were willing to share with Marketplace — to reduce the amount of plastic they sell in their stores.
A milk bag from Nova Scotia sits among the piles of plastic waste Greenpeace investigators documented in Jenjarom, Malaysia. (Greenpeace)
“Things need to change,” said Sylvain Charlebois, an expert in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He says single-use plastics such as those used for food packaging are becoming increasingly controversial and that “companies will need to comply with what the public is beginning to expect of them.”
As Marketplace discovered, that process is much further along in the U.K. compared to Canada. Retailers there have begun to take major steps toward removing plastic from their stores.
‘We took action’
Iceland, a U.K.-based chain that specializes in frozen products, is the first supermarket in the world to commit to removing all plastic from its own products within five years.
Morrisons, another large British chain, has banned single-use plastic bags and allows customers to bring reusable containers for meat and fish. The company has also removed packaging from fruit and vegetables on a trial basis in some stores.
Andrew Thornton, owner of Thornton’s Budgens in London, has taken drastic steps to eliminate as much plastic packaging as possible from items sold in his grocery store. (CBC)
Thornton’s Budgens, a branch of the Budgens chain located in London’s Camden borough, has gone even further, becoming one of the first supermarkets in the world to introduce completely plastic-free zones throughout the store. In 10 weeks, the store eliminated the use of plastic packaging for nearly 2,000 products including fruit, vegetables, bacon, fish, baked goods, cheese and takeout food.
“We are trashing the planet, and for me, plastic has become … one of the things that’s wrong with our society today,” store owner Andrew Thornton said. “We took action because we could and we felt we could make a difference.”
Fruit and vegetables are packaged with compostable beechwood netting made from sawmill offcuts or have no packaging at all. Bakery products are sold as is or packaged in paper, and cheese, fish and some meats are wrapped in wax paper or compostable cellulose wrap. “Our customers love it,” said Thornton, who plans to have the whole store “virtually plastic-free” in three years.
But to take those further steps, he says he will need co-operation from major suppliers like Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola to find alternative packaging for their products.
Frankie Gillard of the environmental group A Plastic Planet, who oversaw the project at Thornton’s Budgens, says big supermarkets have the power to get major brands to switch to more sustainable packaging methods. “You basically say, ‘We’re going to de-list your product otherwise,'” she said. “They have the power to make or break a brand. So, of course, they have the power to say how it should be packaged.”
China closes its doors
If public opinion could help push the grocery giants in that direction, those mountains of plastic waste in Malaysia might provide an added sense of urgency.
Until recently, for much of the developed world, recycling meant shipping plastic to China, where it was bought as a commodity and processed cheaply to be used in new consumer products. Western countries had grown used to this solution rather than re-processing all of their materials at home. Nearly half of the world’s plastic trash has been sent to China since 1991, according to a University of Georgia study.
But this all changed in January 2018, when China closed its doors to much of this waste as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the country. The University of Georgia study estimates the move could lead to 111 million tonnes of global plastic waste having nowhere to go by 2030.
Plastic waste is piled next to a waterway near Kuala Lumpur. (Greenpeace)
Marketplace contacted municipal waste managers in cities across Canada to find out what impact the change has had one year on. While the challenges varied across the country, many municipalities are still facing major headaches.
“It’s a buyer’s market out there. We’re not selling material anymore, we’re paying people to take it,” said Matt Keliher, manager of solid waste for the City of Halifax.
The business of finding markets for Canada’s plastic waste has become “hyper-competitive,” he said. Keliher wouldn’t reveal the destination for plastic collected in Halifax’s blue bin program for fear the city could be undercut by other municipalities.
Sharon Howland, head of program management for the City of Calgary, said the municipality used to send 50 per cent of its recyclables to China. Calgary still hasn’t found a destination for some materials, including those plastic clamshells used to package things like cherry tomatoes, salads and berries.
“We’re storing that material in trailers at one of our facilities,” she said.
Sobeys sells many vegetables packaged in plastic. (CBC)
Toronto and Montreal have been less negatively affected by China’s decision. Waste officials in those cities told Marketplace they work with recyclers based in Ontario and Quebec.
However, both cities are still struggling to find markets for what is known as film plastic, which is used for shopping bags, bread bags and dry cleaning bags.
“Film is a problematic one, as all of it was going to China before,” said Nadine Kerr, manager of processing and resource management for the City of Toronto.
And it is this type of plastic — including some apparently shipped from Canada — that Greenpeace found dumped in Malaysia.
Malaysian government statistics provided to Greenpeace show a sharp increase in global plastic exports to that country since China introduced its new restrictions. In the first six months of 2018, Canada shipped more than 16,000 tonnes of plastic to Malaysia.
Reuben Muni, Greenpeace’s Malaysia program manager, says the country’s recycling industry is “overwhelmed by the huge influx of imported plastic waste.” He says the global recycling system is broken and that fixing it will require the co-operation of the wealthy countries that produce so much of the waste and the countries that import it.
Since mass production of plastic began in the 1950s, the world has produced 8.3 billion tonnes of it. In Canada, just 11 per cent of plastic gets recycled, and globally that number drops to nine per cent.
Plastic has been found in the Arctic, in the deepest trenches of the oceans, in the air and in our food. By 2050, it is believed there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans per tonnage than fish.
Unlike materials such as aluminum and glass, plastic can only be re-processed a finite number of times. This means even the plastic we do manage to recycle will eventually end up as waste. Once discarded, it takes hundreds of years to break down.
A University of California, Santa Barbara study estimates that 40 percent of plastic is used for packaging. But reducing the amount we use as consumers is difficult when retailers provide few alternatives.
The shelves at Canadian grocery giants Loblaws and Sobeys are filled with plastic-wrapped products.
Fruit, vegetables, eggs, bakery products and even coconuts are wrapped in plastic packaging. Meat and fish are sold in difficult-to-recycle foam trays, and ready-made takeout food is sold in black plastic trays that aren’t accepted for recycling in most of Canada.
Both stores also still provide customers with single-use plastic shopping bags, although Loblaws says it provides a billion fewer bags a year since introducing a small fee in 2009.
Marketplace reached out to both Loblaws and Sobeys to find out their targets to reduce plastic packaging in their stores.
A look at takeout options at a Loblaws store. The black trays are particularly difficult to recycle. (CBC)
In a statement, Loblaws did not reveal any specific targets, but the company did say it recognizes that “plastic packaging is an area that needs considerable attention” and that it will take “incremental steps” to tackle it.
The grocery giant says it has reduced total packaging by 4.9 million kilograms since 2009, but didn’t provide a specific figure for plastic.
Sobeys did not respond to repeated requests to share any steps the chain is taking to cut down on plastic.
‘The big change’
As for Thornton in London, he hopes the big stores will be inspired to follow his lead.
“If we … can do this in 10 weeks, what could a Loblaws, or a Tesco, or a Walmart do if they put all their resources behind it?” he said.
“That’s when the big change happens.”
Featured image: There are mountains of plastic waste near Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur — and some of it originated in Canada. (Greenpeace)