Although the world experienced a slight drop in carbon emissions during the pandemic in 2020, another threat to the environment grew more dire: plastic waste.
Plastic pollution has mushroomed during the COVID-19 crisis. Besides trash bins overflowing with plastic take-out boxes, plastic egg cartons, plastic twine and used personal protective equipment like plastic gloves and masks, several major agreements on plastic recycling have been ignored or undermined—even though plastic ocean waste is one of the most pressing threats to the planet.
The oceans are already choking on 11 million metric tons of plastic waste a year—enough to pile more than five bags of garbage on every foot of coastline around the world. Besides killing millions of sea animals and littering the oceans with waste and floating plastic garbage patches, plastic also endangers coral reefs, widely considered “the lungs of the planet,” which are already in danger from ocean acidification, overfishing and climate change.
Equally troubling, plastic waste is breaking down into nanoplastics and microplastics that have cropped up everywhere from fish and sea salt to our own bodies, potentially damaging skin, lung and brain cells. Microplastics have even been found in human placentas, a finding of grave concern to researchers.
As plastic pollution threatens ecosystems around the world, there’s been mounting concern in philanthropy about plastic pollution of the oceans. The question is, who is stepping up to the plate?
The largest and most influential player is the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works with business, academia, policymakers and institutions to promote the idea of a circular (read: no-waste) economy.
Since 2018, it has enlisted these groups in a sweeping global initiative to eliminate plastic waste. With the help of the U.N. Environmental Programme, the foundation and the project’s lead philanthropic partner, the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, are leading an initiative called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Five venture capital funds have pledged $200 million and 15 financial institutions with $2.5 trillion in assets have endorsed the initiative and its vision—“a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste.”
More than 1,000 organizations have also signed on to the initiative, including firms that account for 20% of the world’s plastic packaging. Core partners include the Coca-Cola Company, L’Oreal, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, WalMart and the Oak Foundation, which tackles social, global and environmental change and is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
How much progress has the initiative made? Its 2020 report celebrated some victories: recycled content in packaging grew by 22% from 2018 through 2019, and 47% of governments agreed to expand their reuse solutions, more than twice as many as had committed to that in previous years. Some partners also phased out common problem items, including polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride packaging and single-use plastic bags and straws.
Unfortunately, this is just a drop in the (plastic) bucket, reflecting the limits of a global initiative that is basically voluntary. Some environmental groups, including Greenpeace Indonesia, have also criticized the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment for prioritizing recycling over reduction and reuse, while companies continue to churn out single-use plastics at record rates. In fact, the oil and gas industry is ramping up plastic production through the use of ethane, a byproduct of fracking. Not surprisingly, plastic waste in the oceans is predicted to triple by 2040.
Growing problem, inadequate responses
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2020 report acknowledged “much more has to be done, and at greater speed” to meet its goals for plastic waste reduction by 2025.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the drawbacks of our linear economy,” the report stated. “We have, for example, seen rocketing demand for takeaway food containers and bubble wrap—most of it not recyclable—and the halting or reversal of policies aimed at reducing single-use plastic products.”
In addition, the foundation conceded that industry had made little progress on recycling or reducing the need for single-use packaging. It also found significant differences in the rate of progress among companies signing on to the initiative—“while some have taken big steps forward, others have shown little to no progress.”
Perhaps nowhere is the latter truer than among grocery retailers. In a 2019 Greenpeace report titled “Packaging Away The Planet,” which examined U.S. retailers’ performance on single-use plastics, the environmental nonprofit gave every single grocery retailer profiled a failing grade—including WalMart, Target and Ahold Delhaize, which are all signatories to the New Plastic Economy Global Commitment.
“Not one has done enough to tackle the growing plastic pollution crisis,” the Greenpeace report declared. “Unfortunately, most retailers do not even know the extent of their plastic footprints, as they fail to track the plastic packaging of their suppliers or even their own private-label products…Very few retailers have plastic reduction targets at all.”
Troubled by businesses’ lagging response to the crisis, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has called on policymakers to set conditions and incentives “to deliver a world without plastic pollution.” One recent victory is the ANZPAC Plastics Pact, which includes Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations, and was signed this May. In a public statement, Sonja Wegge, program manager of the New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, welcomed the new pact—the first in the Pacific region to join its global Plastics Pact Network—and its goals, which include ensuring that 100% of packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Legislation to unwrap the planet
Urgently needed policy change is also a focus of the Oak Foundation, whose 2020 portfolio included many six-figure grants to marine conservation groups for their work on plastic pollution, including Oceana Inc., Zero Waste Europe, As You Sow and the Greenpeace Fund.
Beginning its work on plastic waste issues in 2015, the Oak Foundation teamed up with the Marisla Foundation in 2016 to grant $400,000 to the Plastic Movement Alignment Project (PMAP). The aim was to unite civil society leaders, activists and others in an international campaign against plastic pollution. In July of that year, PMAP held a convening involving 40 organizations from 25 countries in Tagaytay in the Philippines. What emerged was the “Tagaytay Strategy,” which PMAP described as an international strategy “to tackle the plastics problem head-on.”
The coalition launched a global #breakfreefromplastics movement, which has raised $4.8 million from 10 donors in the European Union and the United States, and has involved more than 1,200 organizations worldwide. Among other outcomes, dozens of international companies, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, have agreed to targets for plastic recycling, reuse and compostability. In addition, 50 countries are considering legislation to reduce plastic use and India has committed to ending most single-use plastics over the next six months.
In the United States, which produces more plastic than any other country in the world—350 million metric tons a year—the group helped drive the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (Democrat of California’s 47th District), the act offers “the most comprehensive set of policy solutions to the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress.”
The Oak Foundation is also funding consumer education. One grantee, the Story of Stuff Project, based in Berkeley, California, created a documentary and animated short called “The Story of Plastic,” which was launched on the Discovery Channel on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last April. Part of the #breakfreefromplastic movement, it calls on viewers to “write a new story of plastic…in which people and the planet come first.”
A foundation’s “Plastic Free July” draws global support
“Behavior change is the seed of cultural and system change.”
—Behavioral economist Colin Ashton-Graham, quoted in the Plastic Free Foundation’s 2020 report
Since consumer pressure is key to ending plastic pollution, a small foundation with a big reach has made that its goal.
The Plastic Free Foundation (PFF) has a mission to eliminate plastic waste, and that begins with encouraging people to stop using single-use plastics. Incorporated in 2017 in South Fremantle, Australia, the foundation runs an award-winning global campaign called Plastic Free July. According to PFF Executive Director Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, who founded Plastic Free July, this annual event has inspired 326 million participants in 177 countries to move toward a plastic-free lifestyle.
“We can’t recycle our way out of this problem,” Prince-Ruiz has said. “To create a world without plastic waste, we need to turn off the tap, not mop the floor.”
People and groups participating in the 2020 Plastic Free July Challenge ranged from musician Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens to The Story of Stuff project. Though participants found that the pandemic made it harder to change their behaviors, they were still able to reduce waste by a “staggering” 21 kilograms per person per year—thus avoiding more than 900 million kg of plastic waste.
As Prince-Ruiz put it in the foundation’s 2020 report: “Alone, we’re a drop, but together, we’re an ocean.” The challenge’s current target is to avoid 1 billion kilograms of plastic waste this year.
Among those participating in last year’s Plastic Free July project was the Surfrider Foundation, founded by a group of Malibu surfers in 1984 when they found their beaches and surfing spots trashed by plastic and other waste. Since then, the Surfrider Foundation has grown into one of the world’s largest conservation organizations dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. During the pandemic, “our volunteers started to notice an increase in plastic waste and new items like masks and gloves pretty early on,” said Surfrider’s plastic pollution manager Rachael Cocchia, who went on to say that the group added a new category to its cleanup database to document those items.
Besides supporting plastic pollution legislation, including AB 881, a bill to close California’s plastic waste export loophole, Cocchia said the group links all its programmatic work, including beach cleanups and its work with “ocean-friendly restaurants,” to its policy campaigns. Although the Surfrider Foundation doesn’t give grants, it reports having mobilized a force of more than 1 million volunteers.
“I am most proud of our grassroots network of volunteers who care so deeply about the issue of plastic pollution that they’ve dedicated their precious free time to help put a stop to it once and for all,” Cocchia said. “The data our volunteers collect at cleanups gets uploaded into our online database to support and influence policy. The restaurants in our network that have committed to reducing wasteful single-use plastic become examples of success and key stakeholders in passing progressive policies. Now that we’re emerging on the other side [of the pandemic], we must prioritize reusables for onsite dining.”
Other foundations are reaching out to teens and youth in the hope of creating the next generation of ocean stewards. The Wayfinder Society is working on outreach with the California-based Alagita Marine Research Foundation, whose founder, Captain Charles Moore, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The foundation urges teens and youth up to age 20 to watch “The Story of Plastic” and apply for a Wayfinder “Stay Stoked Award” to develop ideas on stopping ocean pollution. According to the foundation, “Our mission is not to pick trash out [of] the sea; it’s to fundamentally shift our way of thinking on land.”
A Paris Agreement for plastic?
Even though consumer support for change is widespread, the overall plastics pollution threat remains overwhelming, driving activists and foundations to call for a United Nations treaty on plastic. “This would ensure the producers of plastics and the manufacturers of plastic goods take responsibility for the material they’re creating for the whole of its lifetime,” said Jess Busby of the Plastic Free Foundation.
Another organization supporting a Paris Agreement-type accord on plastic is SoulBuffalo, which led the first activist-to-industry summit on ocean plastic in 2019. “To imagine the summit, picture 165 senior leaders from Coca-Cola, Dow, Greenpeace, the American Chemistry Council, the World Bank, The World Wildlife Fund and representatives of some of the world’s 15 million informal waste pickers all stuck together on a boat together in the middle of the Atlantic Garbage Patch for four days,” wrote SoulBuffalo founder Dave Ford in Scientific American. “We snorkeled together in a sea of plastic and hosted boundary-pushing conversations between leaders that don’t usually sit in the same room.”
The summit was just one of a series of conversations—moved online during the pandemic—that activists are holding in preparation for a February 2022 United Nations decision on whether to move forward on a global plastics treaty, according to Ford. Environmental NGOs have already called for a global plastics treaty in a June 2020 report co-authored by the Center for International Environmental Law. A month later, Pew Charitable Trusts, SYSEMIQ and academic partners published Breaking the Plastic Wave, an evidence-based roadmap to drastically reduce plastic ocean pollution.
The proposal for a Paris agreement on plastics has drawn support from climate scientists and other experts around the world. With this in mind, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and the Boston Consulting Group drew up a business case last year for a United Nations treaty on plastic pollution, one endorsed by NGOs and 30 major businesses. The report warns of the urgent need for action from industry and governments: Plastic pollution, it says, “can persist for centuries. It is increasingly polluting the environment and threatening the food chain. There is no time to waste.”
With the advent of the G7 conference on June 11, ocean experts are hoping that the Biden administration will push the idea of a global plastics treaty. To date, however, the United States is the only G7 country that has not publicly called for such a treaty.