How businesses can tackle pollution from non-recyclable plastics

  • Companies have a major impact on the environment and must actively participate in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Investing in the SDGs should be a top priority for businesses to mitigate their direct and indirect impact on the world.
  • In today’s environmental reality, businesses must reduce their environmental footprint and help address environmental injustices to nature and society.

As we better understand the impact of business, both on the environment and on communities, businesses are called upon to take appropriate action for their direct and indirect impact on the planet.

Large corporations are largely responsible for the rapid rate of plastic consumption and waste generation. They can also provide the solution to clean up the environment and simultaneously demand social justice.

True corporate social responsibility requires acting beyond appearances. Companies need to think about everything from their supply chain and raw material sourcing to how their products are disposed of. This requires constant attention and massive changes in current practices.

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled and 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every year. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration of businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful action to address plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with tech giant SAP to create a pool of over 2,000 waste pickers and measure the amounts and types of plastic they collect. This data is then analyzed alongside the prices paid along the value chain by buyers in Ghana and abroad.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can rethink the global take-make-throw-away economy as a circular economy in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Learn more in our impact story.

What is the real impact of companies?

Although sustainability experts agree that all stakeholders must take responsibility for their role in climate change and social issues, businesses have the greatest impact on the environment and therefore bear the greatest responsibility.

Plastic pollution seeps into the oceans primarily due to poor waste management and lack of recycling capabilities. It is also due to market structures and selective liability.

Recycled materials are becoming a standard requirement in many industries, with some companies declaring ambitious goals of 50-100% recycled materials for all their products. While informal waste pickers collect high value recyclable materials such as PET plastic bottles, low value non-recyclable plastic from the same source is not collected. This continues to pollute the oceans and impact coastal communities. Lack of value due to market demand creates a bigger problem without anyone taking responsibility for it – this is often referred to as ‘orphan plastic’.

Given their influence in the market, companies that choose to focus solely on supporting the collection and recycling of valuable plastics create an imbalance in the system. Meanwhile, low-value post-consumer plastic waste (mostly single-use) is not recycled. This leads to massive environmental problems for vulnerable communities where waste management is almost non-existent. Unfortunately, while recyclable plastic bottles are collected, plastic bags, polystyrene, fishing nets, clothing and shoes are left behind.

Carbon Majors found that only 100 energy companies are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although this only highlights one industry, many other industries contribute to the climate problem. We also need to look beyond a the company’s direct social and environmental impact. When we look at the environmental footprint of a single product, we need to consider its impact throughout its lifetime, from extraction to disposal. This will lead to the realization that a single company has a far greater impact than we previously thought.

Those with the most power to effect change can do so ethically. It’s not only the morally right thing to do, it’s also essential to the growth and future success of a business. One of the ways businesses can act ethically is through corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia: Next to every plastic bottle is non-recyclable plastic

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia: Next to every plastic bottle is non-recyclable plastic

Image: TONTOTON

How corporate social responsibility makes a difference

Society’s expectations of businesses have evolved in recent years. CSR is when a company goes beyond its policies and operating practices, on a voluntary basis, to take responsibility for their impact. A good CSR program will ensure that the environmental footprint is as small as possible. It also ensures the ethical treatment of everyone it affects.

Often inspired by the SDGs Impact Enterprise Actions, a company must understand the current and future effects of its work, integrate the objectives into their purpose and align operations for optimal impact. Ensuring proper monitoring and evaluation is an essential part of assessing the degree of impact of CSR projects. Overall, these actions should be based on a company’s vision to do good.

CSR makes companies more competitive, showing that they care about workers. A Study of the Millennial Workforce showed that 64% of millennials won’t take a job if the company doesn’t demonstrate corporate responsibility. Eighty-three percent said they would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. CSR strategies are therefore essential to have a competitive workforce. Likewise, CSR shows customers that companies care, which will eventually cultivate a loyal customer base.

CSR can have a huge positive impact on the environment and the people who are affected by their actions. TOMS is a great example not only to engage in CSR strategies but to adjust their strategies if a first approach proves to be problematic. Originally, they gave away one pair of shoes for every pair of shoes sold. This resulted in over 100 million donated shoes. However, when they received criticism from NGOs for this well-intentioned CSR strategy, they decided to donate part of their profits to local campaigns. Social and environmental standards are changing as we better understand our impact. Companies need to decide on the best ways to implement CSR strategies into their business models.

The flexible nature of CSR does not mean that there are no incorrect strategies. Successful CSR models must stay up to date with current social and environmental policies. They must take all stakeholders into account. They must regularly audit supply chains and take concrete action if flaws are identified.

Our ocean covers 70% of the surface of the globe and represents 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever to climate change and pollution.

Tackling serious threats to our oceans means working with leaders in every sector, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, together with the World Resources Institute, brings together the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a program with the Indonesian government to reduce plastic waste in the sea to a global plan to hunt down illegal fishing, Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an integral part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the transition to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the CEO Climate Alliance, who have reduced their companies’ emissions by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Learn more here.

How TONTOTON’s Plastic Credit System Helps Businesses Take Sustainable Action

Plastic production and waste generation are major concerns for large producers. CSR or sustainable development strategies must take into account the social and environmental impacts of each stage of a product’s life. This includes the management of waste surrounding the product.

Orphan plastic is a major source of pollution. Not only is it not recyclable, but it also often ends up in poorly managed landfills, burned or left in the wild. This could result in the leakage of toxins that are dangerous to humans and wildlife.

TONTOTON’s certified plastic credit system allows companies to take responsibility for orphan plastics surrounding their products. As companies increase the amount of recycled plastic in their products, they can also take care of non-recyclable plastics. Once the plastic is collected, we send the waste to be co-processed in cement factories. Through this process, plastic is converted into energy and raw materials. So far, ours is the cleanest and safest way to get rid of harmful plastic waste in large quantities.

Projects funded through our Certified Plastic Credit Scheme benefit both the environment and the communities in which we work. We have monetized orphan plastic, providing additional income to those who work with us while cleaning up the areas most vulnerable to mismanaged plastic waste. Our community waste pickers are trained, have personal protective equipment, access to healthcare and competitive wages.

Bryce K. Locke