Here’s a grim reminder for today, World Oceans Day: A study just published this month should give a renewed urgency to the importance of corporate plastics promises. While public focus had been drawn toward gyres of plastic like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – which estimates have suggested is three times the size of France floating in the high seas - the study published in Environmental Research Letters draws attention far closer to shore. Results show that during the first five years after buoyant marine plastic waste enters the ocean from a land-based source, almost 80 percent either stays in coastal waters or comes back to land. It is actually rare for the waste to travel to the open ocean from the coast, researchers write.
These results bring the problem of plastic waste a little closer to home than the middle of the ocean. For companies, the implications may be significant, especially if businesses have failed to make progress on commitments to reduce virgin plastic intake or to increase their containers’ recyclability. Should branded plastic packaging find its way into the mouths of marine life or floating onto a beach and onto viral images within social media, the risks to a company’s reputation could be more costly than a persistent transition to renewable packaging would have been.
As of this time last year, the majority of companies weren’t doing enough to help stall the plastics crisis. The nonprofit As You Sow came out with a report grading 50 large companies on their progress toward sustainability and transparency of packaging, including supporting recycling and transferring the responsibility for waste to the company’s own hands. The vast majority assessed received a D or F, and only one company received a B for its efforts.
As You Sow noted some progress, such as the prevalence of the goal to make all packaging recycling by 2025. But companies overall have not been taking the leap toward reusable packaging or recycled content. As You Sow even noted that the current supply of post-consumer recycled materials is inadequate to meet corporate commitments. Thus, the non-profit’s last point that companies aren’t taking responsibility for the recycling systems they rely on — as in supporting deposit and producer responsibility laws.
Even corporate signatories of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, representing 20 percent of plastic packaging produced globally, have been lagging on their commitments. The most recent progress report from 2020 states that “substantial acceleration of progress will be needed in the coming years to achieve the 2025 targets,” drawing attention specifically to the recyclability of plastic packaging and reduction of single-use packaging. Less than 2 percent of signatory packaging was reported to be reusable — a significant problem when over 90 percent of plastics end of being discarded.
This year’s World Oceans Day is a good time for companies to remember their plastics commitments (or lack thereof) and make positive strides. A 2020 survey from the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that more than half of U.S. consumers were highly concerned about the environmental impact of packaging. They’re even willing to pay more for “green” or more sustainable products, the survey showed.
The persistence of plastics close to shore should ring alarm bells for those producing and procuring plastic packaging. Although coral reefs, often close to shore, occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean, they hold nearly one-quarter of all ocean species. Even more, about 95 percent of commercially important fish species rely on coastal habitats. Understanding now that the vast majority of plastics remain close to marine centers of biodiversity and food supply ups the stakes for reducing the production of plastic packaging.
Image credit: Dustan Woodhouse/Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.