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Each year, more than eight million metric tons of plastic ends up in oceans, endangering marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism. Unless something changes, by 2025 the oceans will hold about one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish, according to estimates from the Ocean Conservancy.
In response, large consumer brands are announcing plans to limit the impact of plastic in the environment. But whether those plans put the focus where it should be is very much up for debate.
Environmental groups have long advocated policies that ban or limit the amount of cheap, single-use plastic in circulation. Some manufacturers, however, contend the costs of replacing plastic might ultimately lead to more pollution. They want priority to go toward building better waste collection and recycling infrastructure—particularly in the emerging economies of Southeast Asia.
“Once people have gotten used to packaged foods, they are not going to give that up just because someone in an office in New York City thinks they should,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics.
Several countries ban or tax the use of plastic bags, and in the U.S. California has banned their use, as have some cities. But that recent push ignores the potentially problematic trade-offs of developing substitute materials, Wooster said.
“We don’t want to make plastic bottles or packaging heavier just because it would be easier to recycle,” he told Bloomberg Environment last week, speaking from the World Ocean Summit in Mexico. “The fact of the matter is that without plastic, we would probably end up with more waste. It would just be a different kind of material, potentially with even more problems.”
Two of the world’s largest food companies, McDonald’s Corp. and Coca-Cola Co., announced initiatives in January aimed at reducing the amount of packing waste in their global operations.
McDonald’s set a target to make 100 percent of its consumer packaging from “renewable, recyclable and certified materials” by 2025. It also pledged to offer recycling in all of its worldwide restaurants.
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest soft drink maker, declared its goal to recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030. For every bottle or can the company sells globally, it wants to take one back.
“We don’t currently see a viable replacement for packaging, so the solution is very much about putting better stuff out there, and bringing it back,” said Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy at Coca-Cola.
Environmental activist group Greenpeace slammed Coca-Cola’s plan for failing to include any reduction of single-use plastic bottles. And Greenpeace noted that 110 billion of those bottles are produced annually, about 3,500 per second.
“Instead of focusing on reducing the amount of plastic it produces, the sure-fire way to reduce ocean plastic pollution, Coca-Cola is trying to offset its huge plastic footprint by investing in a bit more recycling,” said Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK.
Jordan says Coca-Cola doesn’t see a one-size fits all recycling approach, but plans to work with local governments, as well as to focus on initiatives such as the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, which holds the broad goal of reducing the amount of plastic waste leaking into the ocean annually by 50 percent by 2025.
Given China’s recent decision to stop serving as the world’s waste recycler, Edge said the resulting backlog shows that “we can’t recycle our way out of this mess while we continue to make the mess bigger.”
A 2015 report by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey & Co. found that 60 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans entered from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Studies have shown that microscopic bits of plastic, can bioaccumulate in fish, causing liver damage and death. This is a problem not just for marine life, but also for the global fishing industry, which employs 55 million people and is valued at more than $225 billion.
In the absence of waste collection systems, plastics of low residual value, such as plastic bags or single-use bottles, tend to pile up along rivers and beaches, where they are eventually swept out to sea.
“Compared to a lot of global ocean problems this one is highly solvable,” said Emily Woglom, executive vice president at the Ocean Conservancy. “No one benefits by having an ocean filled with plastic—but we’re not going fix it by doing beach cleanups alone.”
As emerging economies have more money to spend on consumer products, the historical focus on “using less,” might need to take a temporary backseat, in order to fast-track waste management investments in places where the most plastic is entering the oceans, Woglom told Bloomberg Environment.
“If that means temporarily putting more plastic into landfills in Indonesia or the Philippines, that’s better than having it end up in the ocean,” she said. “Hopefully, the [environmental] movement can eventually get to a place where we have all of those things—using less and better infrastructure.”
The challenge to creating this new infrastructure, both in the U.S. and abroad, is money.
“People want to find a sense of agency, but the truth is there is not a lot we as individuals can do to incentivize waste management in Asia,” said Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, which invests in sustainable consumer goods.
But Kaplan said institutional investors don’t have considerable experience in recycling and waste management. His fund aims to change that. With seed capital commitments from the likes of Coca-Cola, the 3M Co., and PepsiCo Inc., Closed Loop recently launched Closed Loop Ocean, a fund focusing on waste management investments in Southeast Asia.
While deploying capital in places such as Thailand and Vietnam may be more complex than investing in the U.S., Kaplan said such actions offer potentially more upside for the environment.
“You’re not talking about incremental change,” he said. “In a lot of these economies, we have the opportunity to leapfrog technologies and start from a circular perspective from day one.”
And while supporting efforts to reduce waste in Europe and the U.S., Kaplan says banning things such as single-use plastic bags or straws isn’t likely to make a dent in the broad goal of curbing ocean plastic.
“If people want to bring their own shopping bag to market, I think that’s great,” he said. “But I think the real question is, ‘What’s the next layer down?’”
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