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Leon Kaye headshot

Will Talk About Curbing Plastic Use Turn into Action?

By Leon Kaye
By and large, the vast majority of retailers operating in the U.S. have done little other than complying with local plastic bag ordinances.

By and large, the vast majority of retailers operating in the U.S. have done little other than complying with local plastic bag ordinances. A surge in local bans, plus investor activism, could spur more companies to take action, however.

There certainly is a lot of talk about weaning ourselves away from plastic. Organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been instrumental in nudging society closer to what is often touted as the circular economy.

Meanwhile, more municipalities in the U.S. are banning plastic bags, while California has had a plastic bag ban (if you wish to call it that – large retail chains must charge for “reusable” plastic bags) on the books since 2016.

But there’s one huge hurdle in moving society away from its dependence on plastic. By and large, the vast majority of retailers operating in the U.S. have done little other than complying with local plastic bag ordinances. While there are plenty of examples of American businesses self-regulating before they become regulated, urgency on plastic consumption has been relatively muted.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ikea has nixed the distribution of plastic bags at its checkout counters for several years. Warehouse store chains like Costco don’t pass them out – instead shoppers have their purchased items stacked into reused cardboard boxes that had once been sitting on shelves. Some apparel and footwear chains, including Adidas and the Disney Store, have stopped giving out plastic bags. Grocers including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods only use paper bags, and are charging for them when local regulations require it. Looking into the future, Kroger, which owns at least two dozen grocery chains, announced last summer it will eliminate plastic bags by 2025.

“The inability to recycle or safely contain in landfills significant amounts of plastic packaging suggests that society needs to carefully assess the continued growth of plastic use, especially for single use applications,” says the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow.

The Oakland-based organization has rounded up a large group of activist investors to urge companies to do their part to mitigate risks related to plastic pollution, from its role in clogging up landfills to the threats it could impose on both public health and the future of the world’s oceans.

Oddly enough, many of the same companies that say they are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and particularly with ocean conservation under SDG 14, are still making it a habit of passing out plastic bags.

That doesn’t sit well with Jan Dell, a contributing writer to GreenBiz. “Free distribution of plastic bags is counterproductive to these commitments and company programs,” she wrote last month. “The retailers are creating plastic bag pollution that is only partially collected in the cleanups.”

In other words, don’t publicize your company’s beach or river cleanup efforts if your organization is also a willing and able part of the current global plastics economy.

With proxy season underway, it will be interesting to gauge whether we will see a surge in shareholder resolutions urging companies to take action on plastic bags and other single-use plastic items. As You Sow is currently curating a list of such proposals. Expect to see even more in the coming years, especially as those 2020, 2025 and 2030 sustainably goals loom even closer.

Image credit: Heal the Bay/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye