Technological watch

Plastic pollution analysis: Progress, yes, but much more work to be done

Some of America's largest consumer-facing companies are making progress to address plastics packaging and pollution, but one environmental and social corporate responsiblity group believes work needs to accelerate.

As You Sow, which uses shareholder advocacy to push change, is out with the Corporate Plastic Pollution Scorecard 2021, a new look at "50 of the country's largest consumer-facing and publicly traded corporations with operations in North America."

As You Sow used the traditional A-through-F grading scale to assess the companies, and let's just say if this were a college test, the professor might consider grading on a curve.

Of all the companies in the report, only Coca-Cola Co. was given a B, with 17 others each receiving a C. The rest were Ds and Fs. There were no As.

Despite the generally low grades, report author Kelly McBee said the results show imrovement.

"Companies are taking more action on their packaging waste, particularly plastic packaging, than they were even a year ago. But the action they are taking is nowhere near substantial enough," said McBee, waste program coordinator at As You Sow. "We need to be doing a whole lot more a whole lot faster.

"They are making greater pledges. They are participating in pre-competitive collaboration more. They are shifting internally to begin allocating more funding for more innovations," she said.

Other top finishers were Keurig Dr Pepper, Nestlé, Walmart, Colgate-Palmolive and Target, all with C+ grades.

As You Sow specifically pointed to Coca-Cola's transparency in reporting packaging use, commitment to recycling all container types the company uses and support of producer responsibility efforts.

The environmental group assessed each company using 44 metrics in six overall categories: packaging design, reusable packaging, recycled content, public data transparency, supporting recycling and extended producer responsibility.

As You Sow indicated findings in the report come from information directly reported to the nonprofit or from public documents "and is not exhaustive." McBee explained that the report relies on details provided by the companies themselves and does not have third-party verification.

Many companies have set sustainability goals tied to 2025, and the scores in the report are largely based on these aspirations.

"It's encouraging progress," McBee said about these targets. "But the progress is exclusively commitment based, companies saying that they will do more, saying that they will engage more collaboratively. Where investors and the public need to be concerned is ensuring that companies actually take these actions."

As You Sow will now use the report to help drive change at the companies, including efforts during the proxy season in 2022 when publicly traded companies hold their annual meetings.

These gatherings allow proposals to come before shareholders for consideration, and As You Sow sees this process as an opening to create the change it seeks in plastic packaging use and producer responsibility.

Just two companies in the report had goals to reduce virgin plastic use in 2019, Procter & Gamble Co. and Unilever, both global consumer products makers. That number has drastically increased to 18 in the latest report.

Coke, the top scorer, even provided a statement to As You Sow in conjunction with release of the report. That is not common, in general, when environmental groups take on issues that often can create conflict with companies.

"We are committed to ensuring the success of our World Without Waste initiative, as well as continuing to work collaboratively with investors, peer companies, and other stakeholders on additional solutions as we know our collective work on this issue is far from done," said Alpa Sutaria, vice president and general manager of sustainability for Coca-Cola in North America.

McBee said companies specifically engaging with the U.S. Plastics Pact and the New Plastics Economy Initiative, two efforts to create a circular economy for plastics, saw their grades improve.

"I was surprised at how much better companies scored," she said. "It is remarkable"

While she gave credit to companies making commitments, McBee also provided some additional perspective.

"It's important for me to share that this report, in part, looks at company commitments and pledges. The highest-ranking companies in this report might not stay the highest-ranking companies if they don't follow through on their pledges," she said. "Time will tell."

The report, with a complete list of companies and their grades, is available at www.asyousow.org/reports/plastic-pollution-scorecard-2021.

Publication date: 30/09/2021

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This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14