A new systematic review published in the Journal of Cleaner Production has evaluated the corporate commitments of 68 large-scale food and beverage producers in terms of their commitment – and action – to minimizing their contribution to global plastic waste.
Study: Plastic pollution and packaging: Corporate commitments and actions from the food and beverage sector. Image Credit: Evdokimov Maxim/Shutterstock.com
Plastic pollution is widely recognized as one of the most pressing current environmental issues and a key driver of climate and ecological emergencies, with a significant portion of this plastic waste originating from the food and beverage sector in the form of single-use plastics.
While the use of durable, lightweight, and inexpensive plastic packaging offers numerous commercial advantages, it is also a major contributor to plastic pollution which has a serious adverse effect on coastal and marine ecosystems, water resources, soil, wildlife, and human health.
Despite the seriousness of this issue and a number of initiatives and efforts to address this, consumption of plastic per capita continues to remain high – and even increase - in high-income countries and emerging economies.
Because the food and beverage industry plays such a central role in the global issue of plastic pollution, the paper’s authors opted to look at how the 68 companies in the study were addressing plastic pollution through their corporate responsibility programs. This was done by analyzing their available corporate responsibility reports.
‘Corporate responsibility is a term that could have any number of interpretations, so in order to standardize their analysis, the researchers opted to define this in terms of six proxies: recognizing that packaging waste lies under the umbrella of corporate responsibility, supporting direct return schemes, supporting the concept of ‘extended producer responsibility, supporting the notion of a circular economy, working with shareholders to address the issue and a commitment to a zero-waste approach (at least).
The study found that 36 of the companies investigated (53%) made broad statements indicating support for the circular economy, while only 10 companies (15%) made a general statement around working with stakeholders and sharing the responsibility to address plastic pollution.
Most notably, just 4 of the companies investigated (6%) directly acknowledged plastic packaging waste as the company’s responsibility; and only 4 of the companies noted commitments to invest in waste capture solutions with a goal of zero-waste production.
Only 5 of the companies (7%) exhibited direct support for regulatory frameworks; for example, deposit return schemes. A total of 10 (15%) of the companies surveyed did mention support for extended producer responsibility (EPR) – an internationally recognized policy approach that places significant financial and/or physical responsibility on producers to address the waste associated with their products.
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The results of the study were, sadly, not promising. It highlighted how few food and beverage companies are taking realistic, tangible steps to meet their corporate responsibility around plastic waste and how few even acknowledge this as their responsibility.
The authors’ findings showed initial progress and a move towards sustainable packaging in the food and beverage industry, but they viewed this transition as inconsistent and slow.
They found that a very small number – just one quarter – of the companies investigated were actively addressing key issues such as increased and more effective recycling programs, effective product end-of-life processes, an active move towards reducing or even eliminating single-use plastics, designing innovative new packaging options and proactively working with stakeholders to drive all of these urgently needed initiatives.
In terms of the circular economy and its importance in addressing global waste in general, around half the companies surveyed did make general statements in support of this. The authors noted, however, that these same companies remain focused on recycling and consumer education rather than any tangible reduction of plastic waste at its source.
Looking to the future, the authors identified a number of gaps in research and areas where there is further work to be done.
They identify that the global food and beverage sector must show leadership to help tackle the issue of plastic pollutions and that this could be achieved by building on existing research and modeling around sustainable production, particularly around the concept of responsible closed-loop supply chains.
The authors also highlight the key issue of global disparities in terms of waste production, suggesting that more geographically focused research is needed to look at the issue of corporate responsibility in terms of the companies’ – and consumers’ – geographical locations.
They point out that companies selling single-use plastic packaged products have a distinct opportunity to pioneer more sustainable and competitive strategies with robust environmental management at the fore.
While producer responsibility around plastic waste and packaging, in general, is growing, the study’s findings show that most companies are doing very little to reduce plastic waste, and this is presenting an especially serious issue in regions lacking an effective waste management infrastructure.
Urgent and wide-ranging proactive efforts are needed to limit pre-market plastic use, extend the scope and capabilities of safe disposal systems in regions lacking waste management infrastructure, advance innovation in the development of sustainable and scalable alternatives to single-use plastic.
Anna (Anya) Phelan, Katie Meissner, Jacquelyn Humphrey, Helen Ross, Plastic pollution and packaging: Corporate commitments and actions from the food and beverage sector, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 331, 2022, 129827, ISSN 0959-6526, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652621040014?via%3Dihub