Major companies fighting plastic pollution actually worsening it - study

November 19, 2022
A woman depositing a plastic bottle in a recycling bin in Worcestershire, UK.

Plastic waste has degraded natural environments and impacted the health of humans and other animals, prompting public calls for businesses to reduce its usage.

However, while many of the world's largest companies have pledged to reduce plastic pollution, a new study has found that more plastic is being created than ever before.

The new research from Duke University looked at the top 300 companies in the Fortune 500, an annual list of the most profitable US corporations, including Amazon, Coca-Cola and Costco.

Among these top players, 72% have made commitments to reduce plastic pollution, however the vast majority are focused on using more recycled plastics, rather than doing away with plastic altogether.

The authors of the study, from Duke University Marine Laboratory, say that recycling plastics is only a partial step in slowing pollution and that most plastics are not reused.

"As of 2015, an estimated 79% of global plastic waste was in landfills or ended up in the natural environment, 12% was incinerated, and 9% was recycled."

They say that companies such as Coca-Cola and Walmart are producing lighter and cheaper plastic items, but their savings can easily be invested in creating even more plastic products.

As plastic usage increases every year, more of it ends up being made than reused.

"Between 1950 and 2017, plastics production increased 174-fold and is forecast to double again by 2040."

In reaction to this study, senior lecturer of AUT's School of Future Environments Jeff Seadon says the New Zealand Government has done well to cut out single-use plastics, but must take further steps to ensure only reusable plastics exist in the country.

"The need now is to close the loop on all plastics so that once they are marketed in NZ they can be reused or recycled indefinitely."

University of Auckland Business School associate professor Bodo Lang added that businesses worldwide will increasingly shift towards using more long-term materials, and Aotearoa has a unique opportunity to lead that movement.

"Our global reputation for being 'clean and green', the small size of our economy, and the distance to other markets means that it is particularly worthwhile - and possible - for us to be innovators in reducing plastic pollution."


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