The actions taken today to address the plastic waste crisis will determine the crisis’s future. Some of the world’s largest brands, as well as consumers of single-use plastic, have begun by making time-bound commitments to reduce their plastic waste footprints. Many of these targets, if met, have the potential to prevent up to 50 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030*.
It is critical for both people and the environment that these businesses succeed. WWF launched ReSource: Plastic in 2019 with the goal of closing the “how” gap for success by providing companies with the most up-to-date data and insights they need to take action with the greatest possible impact. ReSource, through an innovative measurement framework, assists businesses in translating their ambitious commitments to meaningful, measurable progress on plastic waste reduction.
Transparent 2022, ReSource’s third annual public report, was released today to show how its legacy Member companies have progressed over the past year. Keurig Dr Pepper, Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and The Coca-Cola Company (Principal Members) are among these companies, as are Amcor, Colgate-Palmolive, and Kimberly-Clark (Members as of 2021). The report also established the baseline footprint for CVS Health, ReSource’s newest Principal Member and company representing the retail sector.
The findings revealed positive but incremental progress in the program’s three key action areas: the elimination of unnecessary plastic, the transition to sustainable inputs for the remaining necessary plastic, and the doubling of global recycling and recovery.
While progress varied across these metrics and by company (see pages 24 -43), the report’s unique methodology enables aggregate analysis of all Member footprints. The advantage of this big picture perspective is that it shows where common challenges can become shared opportunities for action.
Here are key takeaways:
Companies should continue to concentrate on factors under their immediate control, as these are the areas where ReSource Members saw the most significant footprint changes. While addressing the root cause of the plastic pollution crisis will necessitate the repair of a broken system, there are many actions that businesses can take within their operational control to make a significant difference.
McDonald’s, for example, targeted small plastics in their portfolio this year with several key decisions, including eliminating plastic straws and lids from cold drinks for dine-in in Latin America and beginning to phase out plastic straws in China. Similarly, Starbucks announced plans to phase out single-use cups in all South Korean stores by 2025. Members also considered using alternative materials to improve recyclability; for example, in North America, Amcor began using an alternative material for carbon black CPET trays.
While companies can still have a significant impact through the breadth of their portfolios and supply chains, these efforts will not be sufficient to repair a broken material system. Companies must therefore look beyond their supply chains and use their influence to advocate for the enabling frameworks for systemic change.
Advocacy comes into play here.
The role of public policy in enabling and hastening the transition to circularity will be critical. Policy frameworks will allow circular solutions to scale, from creating incentives for reuse and the adoption of other innovative delivery systems to addressing systemic issues such as material mismanagement and recovery. The results of such policies will be critical for corporate commitments, such as increasing the availability of recycled content so that companies can meet time-bound sustainable sourcing targets. Today’s opportunities to advance circularity policy solutions are unprecedented, and we need businesses to advocate for them.
Notably, there is an ongoing push in the United States for a national policy on extended producer responsibility (also known as EPR). Colorado enacted the United States’ first full extended producer responsibility legislation in June 2022 as a result of continued advocacy from NGOs, businesses, and other stakeholders.
The ongoing UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution negotiations represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rewrite the future of the plastics crisis. During this historic process, all stakeholders, particularly business, have an opportunity to contribute to the advancement of an effective and ambitious treaty. WWF is mobilizing corporate support for the global treaty and rallying other businesses to join the call, in collaboration with convening partner Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
While the policy and regulatory landscape catches up, businesses should continue to look ahead and design for circularity now. Working with uncertainty is inherent in designing for future portfolios, but cross-sector collaboration can reduce this uncertainty and pave clear pathways for decision-making.
Companies, for example, can consult the United States Plastics Pact’s list of problematic and unnecessary plastics when deciding what to prioritize for reduction efforts. They can also join initiatives such as the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, which aims to create viable circularity pathways for priority materials. Finally, businesses should not limit their strategies or ambitions to what they can achieve alone or what current policy requires. Instead, a comprehensive vision of how their portfolios will fit within a future landscape of improved waste management systems and optimized incentives and policies, as well as advocacy to advance this vision, is required.
Last but not least, there is the ongoing demand for more and better data. Companies can’t manage what they can’t measure, so data must be the driving force behind corporate strategy. ReSource is renewing its call for collaboration to close data gaps and boost data confidence levels. This call to action is more important than ever as the list of stakeholders interested in understanding the state of the plastic waste crisis grows to include investors, financial institutions, and policymakers.
It is critical that these efforts build on existing work to achieve convergence and alignment rather than duplicating efforts and/or multiplying methods that may be incompatible with one another. Building on existing work avoids costly duplication, capitalizes on the lessons learned by leaders and early adopters, and provides value and feasibility proof points to those being asked to participate in these systems.
To return to the importance of advocacy, consider the upcoming UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, which has the potential to transform how the world understands, measures, and tracks the plastic pollution crisis. The global treaty can scale the availability of critical data that countries and all stakeholders will need to effectively and collaboratively problem-solve at scale if it establishes a high-level framework for information on country-level reporting and disclosures.