Environmental campaigners are warning that bioplastics and recyclable packaging will not solve the world's plastics pollution crisis – following a pledge by consumer goods giant Unilever to halve its use of virgin plastics.
The maker of brands such as Dove soap, Lipton Tea, Hellmann's mayonnaise and Ben and Jerry's ice cream this week unveiled “ambitious” plans to knock 100,000 metric tonnes off its new plastics load by 2025 – and to refocus its efforts on reusable packaging and alternative materials.
Greenpeace says the move – the first time a major consumer goods company has committed to an absolute reduction in plastics – is welcome, but cautioned that a systemic shift is needed to rein in the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution.
Unilever's announcement comes on the heels of a Greenpeace report that found “false solutions” being put forward by multinational goods companies – such as replacing plastic straws with paper ones and turning to bioplastics – actually do more harm than good.
“These so-called sustainable alternatives would put unacceptable pressures on natural resources such as forests and agricultural land, which have already been overexploited,” the report's author, Ivy Schlegel, said.
About nine million tonnes of plastic – bottles, toys, bags and more – enter our oceans every year, with plastic on track to outweigh fish by 2050 if meaningful changes aren't made.
But for Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European coordinator of Break Free From Plastic – a movement of 1,400 NGOs pushing for a lasting solution to the plastics pollution crisis – the real problem isn't plastic at all, but our reliance on disposable materials.
“We need a systemic change rather than a material change,” she says. “The discussion should be about switching from 'single-use' to 'reusable' – whether it's plastic or something else.”
Substituting one disposable material for another still creates waste that ends up in the natural environment. Added to that is the energy that would have been needed to make the product in the first place.
Depending on the product, this means that plastic – of the reusable/refillable variety – may actually be the best fit, says Lévi Alvarès.
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As a new generation of bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics enter the market, concern is rising over what's become known as “greenwashing” – or misleading claims over a product's environmental benefits – leading some governments to ask for evidence to back up those claims.
Regardless, bio-based plastics won't solve our plastic pollution problem. “The pressure we're exerting on the ecosystem with fossil fuel-based plastics will also be exerted with bioplastics – because the need for crops would put massive pressure on the land,” Lévi Alvarès explains.
By its own estimates, Unilever products are used every day by 2.5 billion people in more than 190 countries. It's one of the world's biggest producers of plastic waste.
The company has conceded that its move to halve its use of new plastics over the next five years – and to recollect and process more plastic than it sells – will require a complete rethink of its business model.
In response, Greenpeace has said that, while this emphasis on collection, recycling and alternative materials is a step in the right direction, it would like to see Unilever phase out single-use plastic and packaging from its business model altogether.
For its part, the company says it's planning a rapid increase in packaging that can be reused or refilled, such as toothpaste tablets, as well as some unwrapped products, like shampoo bars.
“These companies have built their fortunes on packaging – because packaging is the driver of their marketing, and helps to make a product more attractive than that of the competition,” says Lévi Alvarès.
“But what they need to understand is that what they're bringing to the consumer is the product – not the packaging.”