Delay, distract, and derail any law or action plan for reducing plastic waste, so business-as-usual can go on as long as possible. These are the three basic tactics that Big Plastic has successfully deployed since the 1970s, according to a report titled ‘Talking Trash’.
‘Talking Trash’ slates Big Plastic
The report - promoted by the Changing Markets Foundation and published in September 2020 - examines the voluntary waste reduction promises made by the corporations that are responsible for most plastic pollution. These are then contrasted with the lobbying initiatives undertaken by these same corporations - or by non-profit, faux-environmentalist groups linked to them - against any legislative action that could effectively reduce plastic consumption and waste production.
Investigative journalists, researchers, and experts collected data from 15 countries in 5 different continents. They examined technical and scientific literature, interviewed politicians and representatives from NGOs and the plastics industry, and acquired sensitive data through Freedom-of-Information-type requests. Thus, they were able to document many cases where the plastics industry successfully stopped the introduction of laws to limit the amount of virgin plastic being produced and consumed, prohibit certain single-use products, or introduce market solutions like Deposit Return Systems (DRS) to ensure the efficient recovery of recyclable plastic waste.
For each of the three main tactics enacted by Big Plastic to impede the approval of legislation that would have caused financial losses for them, the report's authors identified many sub-tactics, outlining what they defined as a true "corporate playbook of false solutions".
Promises that won’t be kept
The first tactic consists of wasting time and postponing every legislative action. This can be achieved, for example, through data manipulation and a lack of transparency, or by voluntarily promising to reduce plastic production and consumption, with no intention of keeping these promises. The authors of the report cited the example of Coca-Cola: on many occasions since the 1990s, the company has promised to increase the amount of recycled plastic in its bottles, increase their recyclability, and increase post-use recovery rates. None of these promises have been kept, with deadlines for these goals always being pushed back or applied to local markets, but not globally.
The report also decries the fact that, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Big Plastic tried to exploit the health crisis to delay the implementation of the EU Directive on single-use plastics. In a letter addressed to the European Commission, trade association EU Plastics Converters asked that the Directive be postponed indefinitely, saying the Commission “did not take into account the hygienic consequences of banning or reducing Single-Use Plastics”. This claim was made even though PPE is not included in the Directive’s scope, and therefore is not among the single-use objects being banned.
Pretend something is being done to solve the problem
The second type of tactics examined in the report are those that fall under the remit of ‘distraction’. These activities are designed to make consumers and governments believe that a change is taking place, when actually “consumer brands, supermarkets and the petrochemical industry to continue flooding the world with cheap, disposable plastic for as long as they can”. One of the most common techniques is to blame consumers for plastic pollution. This shifts the focus from the type of products on the market - single-use and effectively non-recyclable on a large scale - to the actions of individuals, who are accused of not sorting their waste and of polluting the environment.
Since the beginning - in the US in the 1970s - this tactic has been combined with the promotion of waste recyclability, even though internal documents from that time show that the industry had “serious doubt that [recycling] can ever be made viable on an economic basis”.
The recycling scam
“The potential recyclability of plastic has always been used by the plastics industry as the main argument - even in legal cases - against attempts by local and national governments, especially in the United States, to ban plastic bags and polystyrene takeaway containers”, Silvia Ricci - Head of Waste and Circular Economy in the Comuni Virtuosi (Virtuous Councils) association - tells Renewable Matter. “It is true that the different types of polymers found in single-use plastics are technically recyclable - the expert explains - but in practice, they are not recycled. The reasons for this could be linked to the design of packaging, or the technical characteristics of collection, separation, and recycling systems, or even to the lack of sufficient quantities within a certain waste stream that can make the recycling process economically unsustainable”.
According to an overview study published in Science Advances, less than 10% of all plastic produced between the 1950s and today has been recycled. This is despite the high rates of waste separation in the West, because many developed nations export hard-to-recycle waste to developing nations. This increases the percentage of waste that has supposedly been recycled, but in reality, much of it ends up in landfills or fly-tipped in poorer countries.
“Even in Italy plastic packaging recycling rates have been stuck at the same level since 2015, somewhere just above 40%”, Silvia Ricci continues. “The 2019 balance sheet from Corepla (the Italian consortium for the collection, recycling and recovery of plastic packaging) states this figure at 43.4%. At this pace, I think that it will be difficult to achieve EU goals, set at 50% for 2025 and 55% for 2030”, Ricci observes. “In Italy, unless we start to acknowledge the need to adopt Deposit Return Systems for drinks containers, we will never reach the plastic bottle recycling goals of 77% by 2025 and 90% by 2029. Currently, we are at approximately 58%”.
Another action to distract public opinion, the authors state, is to promote litter-picking events where the waste is not subsequently sorted and there is no brand audit to identify the worst polluters. This kind of thing makes citizens feel involved and believe they are doing something useful, which in itself is partially true. However, politicians and the public are made to focus on the attempt to cure symptoms, rather than intervening on the root causes of plastic pollution.
The third tactic identified in the report is acting to weaken and derail legislative proposals. On the one hand, this is achieved through direct lobbying. In 2018, for example, during the discussion on the EU Directive on single-use plastics, LobbyFacts.eu reported that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Tetrapak, and their partners spent over 2.4 million euro to meet EU officials involved in drafting the Directive. On the other hand, there is indirect lobbying, like what is carried out by Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs). The report’s authors decry that PROs can have a strong and unjustified influence on governments. The fact that they manage waste and recycling processes means that they are perceived as more independent and credible. The report, however, shows that in Austria, Spain, and the Czech Republic (to give just three examples) PROs exploited this perception to confuse consumers with labelling that made products appear more sustainable and recyclable than they actually were.
Through direct and indirect lobbying, the report notes, the plastics industry can push for the approval of laws that prohibit banning certain plastic products, or introduce exemptions affecting the application of certain bans. For example, the authors denounce the actions of single-use cutlery producers, who tried to claim their products are reusable (because they can be cleaned) and lobbied for exemptions for bio-based plastics - such as biodegradable and compostable plastics - from being included in the EU Directive on single-use plastics.
Attempts to weaken the EU Directive on single-use plastics
“The same lobbies that tried to weaken the single-use plastics Directive when it was approved in 2018 are now working to influence and delay the guidelines and enforcement regulations that ensure Member states do not compromise the Directive’s effectiveness during implementation”, Silvia Ricci explains. “Lobbying efforts are focused particularly on the attempt to exempt some materials from the Directive’s scope, taking advantage of the definition of what is understood as plastic”.
According to a draft of the Directive’s implementation guidelines, published by POLITICO, the industry is pushing for the exemption of ‘natural, non-chemically-modified polymers’. “This would pave the way for single-use materials to substitute fossil-based plastics, such as cellophane, PHA, bioplastics, and materials like Lyocell, an artificial textile fibre used for products such as disposable wet wipes”, says Ricci. “In this case, wipes producers would be exempt from the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme that the Directive attempts to impose, thus avoiding having to cover end-of-life costs for their products and other costs related to outreach, waste removal and collection”.
Ricci goes on to explain that another worrying part of the draft is linked to the use of terms such as ‘single-serve and multiserve’, which mask the attempt to exclude certain types of containers and food packaging by simply stating on the label and they are not single-serve containers. “The risk is that the guidelines leave space for interpretation that can allow Member States to implement the Directive according to their own specific economic conveniences. This would circumvent the fact that the Directive does not promote the substitution of single-use plastic with other single-use materials, but rather circular approaches and processes based on reusable systems and the EU waste hierarchy”.
Recommendations for the plastics industry and politicians
The report ends with a series of recommendations for the plastics industry, including being more transparent, supporting the laws promoted by governments, and reducing the production of single-use goods. There are also recommendations for governments, which include the introduction and strengthening of regulations for separate collection, policies to encourage reuse and increase the percentage of recycled plastic in products, the introduction of a tax on virgin plastics, and the expansion of EPR schemes. These instructions seem crucial to face the plastic pollution crisis. But will they be implemented?
The ‘Talking Trash’ report mentions the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which was founded in 2019 and whose members are mostly oil and gas companies, producers of chemicals and plastics, consumer goods brands, and waste management and trade companies. The Alliance has promised to invest 1.5 billion dollars in projects aimed at reducing plastic pollution. However, between 2010 and 2017, its members invested 186 billion dollars in new petrochemical infrastructure. According to the Alliance itself, these investments will lead to a 40% increase in plastic production over the next 10 years.
To this day, plastic production and the accumulation of plastic waste in natural environments are advancing far more quickly than any legislation aimed at containing them.