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Pledge to curb ocean plastics comes under fire

Critics say agreement is vague and fails to target a cut in plastics production

by Alex Scott
November 1, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 44


A photo of a beach covered in waste plastic.
Credit: Shutterstock
Critics say the new global agreement will not stop plastic waste from entering the oceans.

More than 290 corporations responsible for 20% of the world’s plastic packaging have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to recycle more plastic as part of a series of measures to curb ocean pollution. Environmental organizations are criticizing the agreement, though, for being light on targets and sidestepping any reduction in the volume of virgin plastic being produced.

Pact’s goals for 2025

Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging

Move from single use toward reuse where relevant

Make 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable

Set an ambitious recycled-content target across all plastic packaging

Invest a meaningful amount in businesses and technologies that help realize a circular economy for plastic.

Signed on Oct. 29 at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia, the agreement sets companies on a path to recycle more plastic and eliminate plastic items that are not needed. The agreement includes a clause that incineration, waste-to-energy, and plastic-to-fuel operations cannot be considered a form of recycling.

Millions of tons of plastic enters the oceans each year. Signatories included Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Target, Unilever, and Walmart.

The agreement was brokered by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British charitable organization, in association with the United Nations. The commitment is the most ambitious international effort yet to tackle plastic waste at the source, according to United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Erik Solheim.

But environmental organizations say the agreement does not solve the problem. “I hesitate to even call today’s corporate announcements a step in the right direction,” Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for Oceana, says in a statement. “To have an impact, these companies must reduce the amount of single-use plastic at the source—in the factory—before it gets to consumers.”

Greenpeace also criticized the agreement. “Individual commitments being made by companies to date just don’t go far enough,” said Greenpeace UK Senior Oceans Campaigner Louise Edge. “Making packaging more recyclable is a step forward, but making more recyclable packaging isn’t.”

As You Sow, a U.S. advocacy group, signed the agreement while acknowledging that the pact could help corporations avoid taking responsibility for plastic pollution. “This is a big disappointment as it allows companies to continue to do nothing—or make largely symbolic voluntary one-time or sporadic contributions to groups doing the actual heavy lifting on recycling,” As You Sow’s Conrad MacKerron says in a blog post.

Still, the agreement in Bali spawned a series of actions by companies associated with plastic packaging, including a three-year partnership between Unilever and the waste management firm Veolia to develop plastic recycling technologies for use in India and Indonesia.

I hesitate to even call today’s corporate announcements a step in the right direction
Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer, Oceana

New funds for companies dedicated to preventing ocean plastics were also announced in Bali. Circulate Capital, an investment firm that receives support from the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, said it expects to receive over $100 million in funding from several leading consumer goods and chemical firms to finance companies and infrastructure that prevent ocean plastics in Asia.

The European Commission announced in Bali that it is putting $340 million into 23 initiatives aimed at curbing ocean pollution. About one-third of the money will be for R&D. The European Parliament recently voted to strengthen the EC’s plan to ban some single-use plastic items.

And the U.K. government said it will introduce a tax on plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled material.



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