Talking trash: How the plastics industry fails to walk the talk on pollution

A new report exposes the hypocrisy of the plastics industry, which has obstructed and undermined proven legislative solutions to the plastics pollution crisis.

Nuša Urbančič reveals how well-known brands and retailers are working to distract, delay and derail legislation.

The plastics crisis is creating public outrage, awareness and calls for change. According to the most recent Eurobarometer Survey, over 90% of Europeans believe that industry and retailers should make an effort to reduce plastic packaging and design products in a way that facilitates recycling.

This could be interpreted as a strong mandate for the European Commission and EU member states to introduce robust legislation to deal with the problem of plastic pollution. It has also been translated into a flurry of voluntary commitments and group initiatives by the plastic industry to address the issue.

Illusionary change

We analysed voluntary commitments from the 10 biggest plastic polluters according to the two most recent Break Free From Plastic brand audits: Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever.

Our analysis shows that companies have widely differing levels of commitment, ranging from near zero (Perfetti Van Melle and Mondelēz International) to more impressive-sounding commitments (Unilever, Danone and Coca-Cola).

However, even the more ambitious commitments are not commensurate with the severity of the plastics pollution crisis. Most come with serious problems around transparency and accountability and are focused on recyclability but without strong support for mandatory collection. Many companies, like Mars Incorporated and Mondelēz International, also seem to be pinning their hopes on chemical (‘advanced’) recycling – a false solution with not only a history of failing expectations, but also severe climate and toxicity consequences.

Companies also consistently fail to meet their own commitments. Coca-Cola, for example, has left behind a 30-year trail of broken promises, ranging from missed targets on recycled content to failed commitments on recovery and the introduction of bio-based plastic. This starkly illustrates that, regardless of how ambitious voluntary commitments sound, most companies regard them as just paper promises, easily ignored after they have generated favourable headlines.

Smoke and mirrors

Group initiatives do not fare much better. We analysed over 50 prominent national and international initiatives and found they also mostly focus on end-of-pipe solutions, such as clean-up initiatives and consumer education on recycling.

By lending credibility to the worst polluters, without accountability or enforcement, these initiatives are, at best, helping to construct a smokescreen of sustainability behind which plastic producers and consumer brands can continue to pump the world full of plastic unabated. At worst, these groups are complicit in actively delaying and undermining more transformative legislative action.

In fact, our analysis found a shocking amount of overlap between corporate membership of the initiatives that claim to solve plastic pollution and trade associations and lobby groups that actively work to undermine ambitious legislation. This reveals how companies use these commitments to appear to be part of the solution, while at the same time they aggressively oppose and lobby to weaken legislation via trade associations, producer responsibility organisations and even fake environmental groups.

The three Ds

Distracting from mandatory measures through well-publicised voluntary commitments is just one of the tactics in the corporate playbook. We define these tactics as falling into three main categories: delay, distract and derail. The report reveals that ‘Big Plastic’ is a well-organised and interconnected global network of organisations that lobby at every level – from local to international – to fight against proven solutions to solve the plastics crisis, which would require them to fully step up their responsibility and take on the true costs of plastic pollution.

Delaying tactics aim to protect the status quo for longer and to remain primed for future opportunities to weaken legislation. It can also mean withholding data to mask the seriousness of the problem or introducing loopholes and conditionality to the implementation of legislation.

Finally, Big Plastic is also constantly watching for chances to derail legislation before it sees the light of day, whether through legal action or through lobbying for exemptions or weakening enforcement.

To highlight a recent example: the plastics industry is trying to undermine the definition of plastic in the implementing guidelines of the Single Use Plastic (SUP) Directive, which could make the Directive meaningless.

The EU playbook

Our research includes uncovering what happened in the European Union during the debate on the EU plastic strategy and SUP Directive. The plastics industry is a strong lobby, represented through numerous industry associations, consultancies and lobby groups in Brussels and at national level. Our research shows that the industry mobilised to weaken and delay key provisions in the SUP Directive and is now working to weaken the implementation of this directive. 

We specifically looked at how the SUP requirement for 90% separate collection of beverage bottles is being implemented in different EU countries, namely Austria, the Czech Republic, Spain, France, Scotland and Portugal. We found a common trend, where brands and retailers use Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs) to oppose Deposit Return Systems (DRS) by providing misleading data and coordinating lobbying activities.

PROs, such as Ecoembes in Spain, ARA in Austria and EKO-KOM in the Czech Republic, are usually perceived as a more independent recycling organisations, as they were formed following the EU packaging legislation to collect licence fees for packaging placed on the market. However, these organisations are now being used by retailers and some consumer brands to strongly oppose DRS in these countries.

Retailers are strong opponents of deposits and are primed for any opportunity to undermine them, including most recently using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to delay or derail legislation, managing to achieve further delays to the introduction of DRS in the UK. This is despite the fact that DRS is the only way to achieve 90% separate collection and it also enjoys strong public support (for example, 84% in favour in the UK, 83% in Austria).

These are just a few examples of untoward industry influence on proven solutions to the plastic crisis. Our investigation discovered a similar trend of tactics across the world, all of which collectively undermine our ability to turn off the tap on plastic pollution. We are calling on policymakers to adopt progressive legislation and to avoid the distracting allure of voluntary commitments, and we are calling on companies to support such mandatory measures and to be transparent and accountable for their role in tackling this crisis.

 Read the full report here:


Nuša Urbančič is campaigns director at the Changing Markets Foundation.