European Companies Are Leading the Way on Plastic Waste Reduction, But More Needs to Be Done
The time is now to explore alternative packaging, promote recycling and embrace a more sustainable future.
As disturbing as these are, no one is close to solving the problem, as around 18 billion pounds of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every year. That's like cramming five grocery bags full of plastic onto every foot of coastline worldwide. And then refilling those bags every year!
The U.K. is taking a leadership role in addressing this crisis, recently announcing plans to ban the sale of single-use plastic products such as drinking straws, cotton swabs and drink stirrers. But, this is just a drop in the bucket. Currently, only a third of the plastic packaging used in the U.K. is being recycled, and the United States remains the largest consumer of plastic products in the world, with its consumer packaging goods (CPG) industry using 36 percent of all plastic produced annually.
It gets worse.
Diapers, menstrual pads and adult disposables take centuries to decompose and are typically made of non-biodegradable plastic, too. In the U.S. alone, diapers make up 2 percent of all landfill space with adult incontinence products making up another 7 percent of landfill space, up 1 percent from just 20 years ago. And the average person with a period uses about 11,000 menstrual hygiene products over the course of a lifetime, generating up to 130 kilos of waste on their own.
And it goes well beyond the developed world. We have exported our plastics problem to those least able to recycle or dispose of plastic without it ending up in the oceans.
A recent report found that waste from developing countries, which lack much of the recycling and disposal infrastructure that we take for granted, accounts for as much as 70 percent of all ocean plastic, with 38 of 50 of the world's worst uncontrolled dumpsites located on areas that spill directly into the sea.
CPG companies own this.
The good news is that some CPG companies are proactively establishing more environmentally friendly policies, reducing the impact of their products.
In Europe, IKEA and Unilever in particular have been leading the way, setting targets for reducing water, energy and chemical consumption, as well as plastic in their operations. In the U.S., outdoor equipment company Patagonia has established a recycling program to encourage customers to repair their old gear rather than replace it.
The reasons behind these efforts are altruistic, but of course, the other motive is money. Especially as sustainability-focused startups emerge to challenge the status quo.
Attitudes are changing and consumers are starting to demand more environmentally friendly products. And they're voting with their wallets. Companies that are embracing this are seeing growth, while those that are ignoring the trend are effectively putting themselves behind the times.
We need more of this -- much more. But, even this isn't enough, as some municipalities globally seek to make the change.
Cities are taking action, banning some plastic within their borders. San Francisco, for instance, has banned the sale of plastic water bottles smaller than 21 ounces and no longer allows the sale of Styrofoam products. Seattle also recently banned the use of plastic utensils and drinking straws.
Are CPG companies prepared for this sea change when other cities and countries come on board? Not entirely.
Business needs to step up.
Governments are paying attention. Consumers are paying attention. The time is now to explore alternative packaging, promote recycling and embrace a more sustainable future. Global businesses also need to think about developing markets, particularly if they operate in regions that lack the infrastructure to handle recycling and plastic alternatives.
Are consumer goods companies prepared for this sea change and increased scrutiny? Not entirely.
The industry needs to focus on putting infrastructure in place to reduce plastic use in their own supply chains. Right now there is little accountability around this, but that is changing.
Nobody ever said this was going to be easy.
But, it's worthwhile from a business standpoint. Unilever says that a third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good, and 87 percent of shoppers say they would purchase a product because the company behind it advocated for an issue they care about. On the flip side, 75 percent would refuse to purchase if the company supports an issue they do not agree with.
Ultimately, any consumer company is smart if they listen to their customers.
For example, Walmart recently announced plans to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain by one gigaton, largely in response to requests from consumers. CPG companies should be doing this with plastic usage as well. Get out in front of it. Ask your buyers what they're looking for in the products they choose and be prepared to act on their requests and suggestions.
It goes beyond what is sold on the shelf. Consumers can find ready resources on the environmental impacts of their favorite brands. Most large companies, and even small ones might not be ready for that -- knowing where products are sourced, and how they are transported. Sustainability needs to be a focus throughout the supply chain.
Today's shoppers thrive on information, and manufacturing and supply chain transparency are becoming key parts of this. Companies that share the internal steps taken -- from buying employees reusable water bottles to mandating environmental standards for your suppliers -- will win when consumers see they are walking the walk.
Government leaders and consumers are making noise, and it's time for business to get involved in helping curb plastic use. Let's take action to safeguard our environment for the future and our children.