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Supermarkets and FMCGs are not taking responsibility to reduce plastic

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Publication: Publicatie: Plastic Perspectives - An overview of the plastic activities of European and UK grocery retailers and FMCGs

Research among 18 European and UK multinationals shows that supermarkets and FMCGs are predominantly focused on recycling. Companies should aim for more ambitious and concrete targets to effectively reduce plastic use according to Plastic Perspectives, a report by the Dutch Association of Investors for Sustainable Development (VBDO).

Increasing plastic pollution is a danger to human and animal wellbeing. Despite heightened awareness of this problem, a truckload of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute. The UN Environmental Programme stated plastic pollution soared from two million tonnes in 1950, to 348 million tonnes in 2017. It is expected to double in capacity by 2040.

Focus on recycling instead of reduction

The majority of the researched companies chooses to focus on increasing the amount of recycled material, instead of a total reduction of plastic use. However, global recycling percentages remain low: around 9% according to the OECD. The fact that material is ‘recyclable’ does not necessarily mean that this material will be recycled.

Van Kuijk: “Companies are not taking responsibility in the after-use phase of their products. If we want a solution to the problem, we do not only need a decrease of total plastic usage, but also cooperative and strong policies of companies and governments on end of life responsibility.”

Reduction through innovation

Setting targets is one thing, but reaching them is another. This becomes clear from the recently published Global Commitment Report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. More than 500 big companies that use or produce plastic packaging committed to an annual reduction of 11,9 MMT to 7 MMT virgin plastics. However, the report shows that since 2018 the net results of these commitments have been next to nothing.

Part of that is due to a lack of innovation. Companies could research their product portfolios, gain advice on how to reduce their plastic footprint and cooperate in the value chain to bring these solutions into practice. Effective and ambitious government policies can help, by providing supporting measures.

The role of investors

“Three of the five biggest polluters of the last five years have been researched by us. We notice – among other things – that these parties set broad targets, but fail to contribute fundamentally to a solution to the problem,” says van Kuijk, project manager of this research. “We think that further innovation and collaboration is necessary. Additionally, more investors should play an active role, by pressuring these companies to improve and focus on reduction. This starts with demanding more transparency: setting specific targets and reporting the on the progress. Maybe then we can still turn the tide.”