Sponsored By

A new report from Break Free From Plastic claims that fast-moving consumer goods companies such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola are investing in costly projects that do little to solve the plastic waste problem.

Clare Goldsberry

June 28, 2021

14 Min Read
Missing the Mark logo
Image: Break Free From Plastic

While top fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies are seeking ways to reduce plastic waste through a variety of programs that range from the probable to the impossible, Break Free From Plastic has issued a new report that categorizes 265 recent and current projects. Out of these projects, a total of 226 were designated “false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis,” as defined by experts from the Break Free From Plastic movement.

“Missing the Mark: Unveiling corporate false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis” analyzed the initiatives of Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Mars Inc., Mondelez International, Nestlé, Unilever, and the Coca-Cola Co., which are considered to be “top polluters” according to a global brand audit conducted by Break Free From Plastic. While these FMCG companies claim to be tackling the issues surrounding the use of plastic packaging for their products, the report says that they “are pursuing false solutions that range from potentially damaging at worst, and simple wishful thinking, at best.” The findings reveal that “only 15% of the projects are proven solutions like reuse, refill, and alternative delivery systems. Instead, these companies are investing in projects that do little to eliminate single-use plastics,” said Emma Priestland, Break Free From Plastic Corporate Campaigns Coordinator.

Interestingly, the organization places the blame squarely on brand owners, not on consumers who ultimately are responsible for the end-of-life fate of packaging. It’s easy to say that if companies didn’t make their products and package them safely for consumers in various types of plastic material, there wouldn’t be any plastic in the environment or in landfills. That’s like saying if automotive manufacturers didn’t make cars and trucks, there wouldn’t be any traffic accidents.

Report excludes lightweighting, material replacement in audit.

To arrive at the final set of 265 projects included in this report, Break Free From Plastic excluded initiatives that consist primarily of eliminating unnecessary plastic through lightweighting by reducing package size and making thinner packaging. It also excluded materials substitution, including bio-based and compostable plastics and plastics that companies claim are recyclable. “On the reuse/refill/alternative delivery side of the equation, we focused on projects that feature reuse-based alternative delivery systems that enable the delivery of FMCG products without single-use materials of any kind,” said the report.

The report shows that Break Free From Plastic is promoting “reuse-based alternative delivery systems,” one of the items in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment. “As a result, the 2020 progress reports submitted by six of the seven top-polluting FMCG companies, who are signatories to the commitment, are equally as vague about their progress toward this goal.”

According to Break Free From Plastic, the Coca-Cola Co. has only vague statements, no numerical targets attached; PepsiCo has none; Nestlé has 20 pilot programs; Unilever is piloting reuse models with no numerical targets attached; Mars has 10 pilot programs; and no reuse programs were reported by Mondelez International. “The seventh “top-polluting FMCG company, Procter & Gamble, does not participate in the global commitment, and has no 2025 targets at all (the company has targets for 2030 instead),” said the report.

Why the big push for reusable bottles and packaging? It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the alternatives that switching from hundreds of millions of PET plastic bottles for drink products to hundreds of millions of glass bottles would result in an astounding amount of energy use just in terms of hot water and disinfectant cleaners to make reuse possible by sterilization. It would also result in product loss from breakage, energy used to transport truckloads of empty glass bottles from retail outlets, where consumers have returned them, to central washing locations and then shipped to bottling plants. None of that is eco-friendly or cost effective.

Would glass bottles be more likely to get back into the reuse stream than plastic bottles would be to get into the recycling stream? It’s doubtful, as people who throw waste into the environment will throw glass bottles and containers into the environment just as readily. Currently, only 5% of all trash recycled is glass. Not to mention that silica sand used in making glass is in short supply, and the production of glass bottles requires more energy — 2,600o to 2,800oF — than plastic bottles, which have a relatively low melting point of 400o to 500oF needed to recycle PET into rPET.

Advanced recycling called a “false solution.”

It is not surprising that the report calls chemical/advanced plastic recycling a “false solution.” I agree with many of the points on this topic, including the first: “Chemical conversion has not been proven at scale. Compared with mechanical recycling, it has higher costs, energy requirements, and greenhouse gas emissions.” I disagree with the part about higher energy requirements. Higher than what? Glass? I doubt that. As for greenhouse gas emissions, plastic has been proven to produce fewer emissions and use less energy and natural resources than either glass or paper.

Depolymerization, aka chemical or molecular recycling, involves “breaking polymers down (‘unzipping’ them) into monomers so that they can be re-polymerized,” note Michael Tolinski and Conor P. Carlin in their newly released book Plastics and Sustainability – Grey Is the New Green: Exploring the Nuances and Complexities of Modern Plastics. This process breaks down polymers into chemical substances that can be used to make new plastics, such as monoethylene glycol (MEG) and dimethyl terephthalate (DMT). “In the case of polystyrene, the depolymerization of the polymer to the styrene monomer has been shown to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions by 50% when compared to using virgin, petrochemical-based styrene,” write Tolinski and Carlin.  

Unlike incineration in waste-to-energy plants, pyrolysis or gasification “typically exhibit low [greenhouse gas] emissions, do not produce dioxins, and yield useful chemicals that can be converted back into new materials,” Tolinski and Carlin explain in their book. “And though some people are quick to point out that these processes are not ‘closed loop’ in the way that depolymerization is, it is important to recognize anaerobic thermal gasification or plasma pyrolysis of waste materials can displace virgin components when producing chemicals or fuels. In other words, just because petrochemical-based polymeric materials are being converted into other petrochemical-based materials, it doesn’t mean that environmental benefits cannot be identified and acknowledged.”

However, as viable as pyrolysis/gasification may be when it comes to getting rid of plastic waste that is difficult to recycle — #3 through #7 plastic — it amazes me how many of these pyrolysis facilities have yet to become large, commercial-scale operations, or operational at all!  

According to “Missing the Mark,” chemically transforming plastic into fuel is not recycling, “it’s simply another way to burn fossil fuel.” It would appear that those who claim to be “green” only approve of mechanical recycling that transforms PET bottles and containers into new bottles and containers. Product-to-product is the only acceptable way to recycle. Product turned into base monomers/chemicals that then go into making new polymers is unacceptable.

The report noted that “top plastic polluter Mars states plainly on the company website that the company’s ability to hit its 2025 targets for both absolute reduction in virgin plastic use and recycled content is ‘dependent on advancement of chemical recycling at pace and scale.’ In fact, the quest to secure a steady supply of clean, reprocessed plastic made out of plastic waste through the process of chemical recycling appears to be a major driver for the costly rush to finance unproven-at-scale technologies.” The report goes on to point out, and rightly so in my opinion, that a number of these projects have badly missed the mark and, in spite of significant ongoing investments in pilot plants and other infrastructure, “have ended in scandal.” It specifically references Loop Industries and the October 2020 Hindenburg Research report, which resulted in Coca-Cola terminating its agreement with Loop Industries.

“Even more recently,” stated the report, “PureCycle, which purchased a license to use ‘proprietary’ chemical recycling technology from Procter & Gamble, fell apart in May 2021,” when an independent investigation, also by Hindenburg, “revealed that the founders structured its public offering such that they and other sponsors could walk away with roughly $90 million before the company generated any revenue. . . . Top plastic polluter Nestlé formed a partnership with PureCycle in February 2021 in hopes that the nascent company would provide food-grade soft plastic to help the FMCG hit its 2025 recyclability target.”

Third-party collect/dispose projects also offer little more than a false solution to plastic waste, the report noted. This scheme consists of “a company or ‘plastic credit agency’ contracting local entities to collect and dispose of an amount of plastics pollution equivalent to what the FMCG company put on the market as plastic packaging in a given geography,” said the report. “The collection is often undertaken by informal waste workers, and the plastic is often disposed of by burning it, often in cement kilns. Break Free From Plastic found 85 of these projects.” This scheme provides what is called “plastics neutrality” through a nonprofit Plastic Credit Exchange used by “at least four of the top seven polluting FMCG companies in the Philippines (Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelez, Unilever).” This is similar to the carbon credit shell game, in which an entity sells “credits by collecting plastic waste that otherwise might be left in the environment. A company or individual buys enough credits to offset its plastic footprint or a part of it.” 

Materials of concern with this collect/dispose scheme are sachets and other non-recyclable plastics, which tend to be candidates for chemical recycling via pyrolysis. The report identified 54 projects that send this unrecyclable plastic waste to “cement kilns, waste-to-energy plants, refuse-derived fuel plants, chemical recycling plants, and/or entities that downcycle plastic into furniture, road materials, or construction materials.” Again, none of these forms of recycling is acceptable to the Break Free From Plastic crowd. Using any plastic waste for any purpose other than to make the same new products is off limits.

Corporate "narrative projects" spin tall tales.

A third false solution noted by the report are “narrative projects,” such as “bad individual behavior is responsible for plastics pollution.” (That’s one of the truest statements made in this entire report!) Other false narratives include cleanup projects giving the impression that “we can clean up or recycle our way out of the problem.” Cleanups do nothing to address plastic waste entering the environment in the first place, stated the report, noting that some FMCG companies promote cleanups as a way to collect ocean plastic and then make special promotional bottles for their products.

Procter & Gamble used cleanups to promote limited edition Head & Shoulders bottles made in part from ocean plastic. The project was so successful that the company replicated the program in “more than 10 countries,” selling more than one million of these bottles globally. Other FMCGs have done the same type of promotion.

There just might be a false narrative embedded in these ocean cleanups, which is that the FMCG company uses badly contaminated plastic from the oceans and beaches to actually make new bottles. I find that difficult to believe given the fact that nearly all types of recycling aiming for reuse of the material require clean plastics. I have to agree with “Missing the Mark” on this point, especially when it notes that Coca-Cola created a “small run of 300 petite Coca-Cola bottles made out of food-grade recycled ocean plastic pollution that the company said it used ‘to show the transformative potential of new recycling technologies.’” Recycling facility owners will tell you that clean recyclate is absolutely necessary to create rPET — I find it difficult to believe that Coca-Cola pulled a bunch of garbage out of the ocean and made food-grade plastic from it.

Announced-then-nothing projects are another false solution, and I have to say that this is one of my problems with most of these advanced/chemical recycling startups. I’ve written about a couple of these companies for nearly my entire career, and yet I see no production or realization of promised solutions. I receive press announcements touting partnerships with big name companies that supposedly have committed to buy recycled material, chemicals, or fuel, yet several years later, not much progress has been made in the way of actual materials.

Break Free From Plastic found 18 projects that were “loudly announced by the top seven polluting FMCG companies, alliances, and group initiatives and then rarely, if ever, heard from again. It appears that for quite a few of these projects, nothing actually happened . . . subsequent to the initial announcement.” The report specifically cites the Alliance to End Plastics Waste’s African Parks project, and Procter & Gamble’s sanitary waste collection and recovery project in India, announced in late 2018. In 2018, PepsiCo launched Drinkfinity, “a new product intended to promote reuse that featured a reusable bottle that customers could fill with water and customize by inserting a ‘signature’ flavor pod into the inside lid and shake up the drink.”

Renew Oceans is another project that seems to have stalled in its announced efforts to clean up the Ganges River in India. Its “plastic waste traps purchased for the project were found abandoned outside the Renew Oceans project office, which appeared to be empty.” The report notes that the projects receive “significant media coverage” when they are announced, but there is rarely any media coverage or further announcements as to their progress.

Procter & Gamble deemed “absolute worst.”

Listed in order from “absolute worst” to “least worst,” Procter & Gamble ranked “absolute worst” for its refusal to play ball in setting time-bound targets for 2024, and for being the least transparent of the seven FMCG companies named. Second worst is Mondelez International for “taking very little action on reuse beyond its initial contribution of four biscuit types to the first Loop Platform. PepisCo received third worst ranking for being a “core partner in six of the eight alliances and group initiatives included in this report. Three of these — Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Closed Loop Partners, and Circulate Capital — are driving a full 42 of the 50 false solutions projects we found by alliances and group initiatives that the top seven polluting FMCGs are part of,” said the report.


Image courtesy Break Free From Plastic.

Fourth worst on the list is Mars, which the report said is slow to take meaningful action on reuse-based alternative delivery systems, instead seemingly waiting for more generously financed FMCGs, alliances, and initiatives to invest its way to a magic bullet solution for flexibles. “Mars has yet to make much effort on reuse-based alternative delivery systems.”

Coca-Cola is fifth worst on the list, “second only to Procter & Gamble in the pervasiveness of its false narrative projects, and it has more ‘announced-then-nothing’ projects than any other top-seven polluter.” Coca-Cola is also a strong proponent of unproven-at-scale technologies, with four such projects included in Break Free From Plastic’s assessment and scoring. (However, I will add that Coca-Cola broke off its partnership with Loop Industries following the release of the Hindenburg report last October.)

Nestlé is sixth worst, and the “only reason Nestlé is not higher up in the Break Free From Plastic’s Absolute Worst ranking is that the company did not participate in some of the most project-active alliances and group initiatives included here,” said the report. “Nestlé should focus on making [its] packaging truly recyclable or reusable.”

The winner in the “least worst” category is Unilever, which the report said is “clearly making the biggest effort on reuse-based alternative delivery systems, and is the only top-seven polluting FMCG company to pilot these systems in some of the highest leakage geographies.” In addition, Unilever has the most ambitious reduction target, which commits the company to halving the amount of virgin plastics it puts on the market by 2025.

It seems that the primary acceptable efforts for these FMCG companies is reuse, which could be the costliest in terms of the environment given the tremendous amount of natural resources required to sustain the reuse model. Break Free From Plastic also continues to harp about recyclable, but in truth all plastics are recyclable in one form or another. From #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE), and #3 through #7, all can be recycled if:

  • The recycling programs can get access to these products to actually recycle them;

  • groups like Break Free From Plastic will  accept other forms of recycling as valid, such as chemical recycling.

However, chemical recycling will only become a valid technology for hard-to-recycle #3 to #7 materials if — and it's a big if — these companies that keep promoting their amazing, magical technology to remove tons of waste from the environment actually do what they say will do. Until that happens, organizations like Break Free From Plastic have a valid gripe about these “announce-then-do-nothing” technologies.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

Sign up for the PlasticsToday NewsFeed newsletter.

You May Also Like