Big business must alter plastic practices

Many big businesses are committed to cutting plastic pollution, mainly through recycling, but they should really be trying to steer clear of the material altogether, researchers say.

Of the nearly 1000 companies examined - including the top 300 of the Fortune 500 - almost three quarters had made a commitment to reducing plastic pollution.

But the focus is on recycling and, while that is important, firms are failing to comprehensively address the pollution problem, environmental researchers from the Duke University Marine Laboratory in North Carolina found in a new report published on Saturday.

The focus must be on "virgin" plastic reduction and turning off the "plastic tap" at the source, they advise.

"Between 1950 and 2017, plastics production increased 174-fold and is forecast to double again by 2040," the report authors said in a statement.

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

"Growing commitments on plastic pollution are made by large and important companies, but significantly more efforts beyond plastic recycling are required to effectively address plastic pollution challenges."

As well as recycling, businesses are increasingly adopting a technique known as "lightweighting" - where the volume of plastic used in bottles and bags is marginally reduced.

But this response is insufficient because as the number of plastic products increase each year, it does not result in a net reduction of plastic, the researchers found.

"From our literature review, we found that multiple companies, such as the Coca-Cola Company and Walmart, are producing lighter and smaller plastic products," the researchers said in their report published in the journal One Earth.

"This 'lightweighting' of plastic is considered an insufficient response because companies may reinvest this saving into markets that involve new plastic products (and might even) increase the total mass of plastic produced."

It's important that the scientific community continue to hold big business to account on their plastic practices, the researchers concluded.

"Scientists - including natural, life, and social scientists - have an important role in monitoring and defining environmental issues, which may aid in holding companies accountable," they said.

"Understanding whether and how the world's largest companies are responding to the global plastic pollution problem is one of the first steps toward leveraging these actors to become leaders in reducing plastic pollution."