Blame corporations, not people

Plastic addiction: Over half of the eight million tonnes of plastic waste dumped into the world’s oceans every year comes from five Asian countries including Vietnam.— AFP

Plastic addiction: Over half of the eight million tonnes of plastic waste dumped into the world’s oceans every year comes from five Asian countries including Vietnam.— AFP

ON World Environment Day, thousands of people took part in the latest simultaneous global cleanup – an effort to “Beat Plastic Pollution.”

Globally, some eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Now that the whole world is aware of the dire straits plastic pollution has got us into, people are being called upon to do their part and pick up plastic waste.

However, while thousands of people are picking up plastic litter in an effort to stem the tide of pollution, thousands of factories around the world continue to churn out goods by the millions — wrapped in plastic sachets and bottles that last forever, but are meant to be used only once and then thrown away.

Plastic pollution, found in every corner of the globe including in the deepest trenches of the ocean, is the most visible manifestation — and one of the grossest examples — of how corporations have externalised the costs of their profit-making activities. Products are packaged for maximum profitability. And once they’re sold and profits collected, corporations disappear into the woodwork, leaving ordinary citizens to foot the bill for the dirty work of disposal, and to endure the consequences of toxic plastic pollution.

The thing is, plastic packaging was never a consumer demand. But plastic has become an “addiction” in many countries – like Thailand, where as Reuters reported, two million tonnes of plastic waste is produced a year. A pilot whale that died in the kingdom last week was found with 80 pieces of plastic rubbish in its stomach!

Thailand with four other Asian countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – accounted for up to 60% of the plastic waste leaking into the ocean, revealed a 2015 report by the environmental campaigner Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. The five economies have ”generated exploding demand for consumer products”, the report said, but lacked the waste management infrastructure to cope with the surge in plastic garbage.

Many feel that businesses should do more to cut down the usage of plastic packaging or stop customers from taking plastic bags.

For companies, the question of what type or size of packaging was always about maximising profit. The problem isn’t because of consumer choice, but because people have very limited choices. Companies have packaged virtually all basic necessities in throwaway plastic packaging, the cheapest way for them to get the most profit.

So why are corporations completely absent from this cleanup narrative?

Coca-Cola has 900 plants around the world; Nestlé, 447; Unilever, 300.

Many other manufacturers have thousands of plants that market products in throwaway plastic packaging. These companies operate in developing countries where they know waste infrastructure systems and implementation mechanisms are weak.

While there are corporate commitments to address plastic pollution, the commitments are voluntary and weak. Disturbing is their emphasis on light-weighting packaging, chemical recycling (which is still unproven), as well as incineration, including so-called “waste-to-energy” incineration and cement kiln coincineration of their packaging.

Recycling and incineration, and other dubious fixes supported by companies such as converting plastic waste to bricks or to road materials, are not solutions.

Since industry commitments are voluntary, the actions they propose are not necessarily what’s best for people and the environment. Single-use packaging and plastics are still very much present in company commitments, aside from end-of-pipe waste handling. Innovations on alternative delivery systems that can phase out single-use containers much faster, and pledges for substantial plastic reduction, are noticeably absent.

Company commitments need to be more ambitious, mandatory, and regulated and monitored by governments and stakeholders. Companies are capable of making urgent substantial changes to their packaging and delivery systems, the same way that they have adapted to mass-produced plastic packaging in the last couple of decades. The only barrier is the desire to protect profits.

In the past two years, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives Asia-Pacific and its partner organisations in the #breakfreeplastic movement, including Mother Earth Foundation, have been advocating for brand audits instead of cleanups. Expanding cleanup drives to include an accounting of the packaging waste of major brands will hopefully fix the skewed narrative on plastic pollution, and put corporate accountability front and center where it should be.

To continue producing throwaway plastic packing is to continue to profit from pollution. People and their governments must confront the industry’s addiction to disposable plastic packaging as the most important starting point toward a meaningful and lasting solution to the plastics problem. –Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network