INTERNATIONAL – Consumer products companies including Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola are emerging as new targets for global activism, with green groups blaming them for fouling the ocean with plastic and activists urging governments to regulate them.
At the annual World Economic Forum last week, the bosses of these and other firms like Unilever and PepsiCo have been on the defensive, in a way reminiscent of how coal and oil chiefs came under pressure over climate change in previous years.
The chief executives at Davos have vowed to cut their use of plastic packaging through a range of initiatives, including a joint recycling scheme unveiled during the forum. But Greenpeace used that announcement to call for plastic packaging bans and a goal of “peak plastic”, saying recycling was not enough.
About 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every year, killing marine life and entering the food chain, according to the UN Environment Programme. Data like that, and TV shows such as documentary-maker David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, have taken the issue to the top of the summit agenda.
Attenborough, 92, was honoured with a special award at the start of the annual event, where environmental concerns were a running theme alongside gloom and doom over the US-China trade war and a slowdown in the global economy.
In 2017 at Davos, Dove soap maker Unilever promised to ensure all of its plastic packagings was recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
“Two years ago at Davos, Unilever was in front on plastics. At the moment it’s high on our radar to do something about plastic waste above and beyond the rest of the industry.”
Dozens of big companies have made various pledges to reduce plastic packaging, including a plan by 40 firms to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging in Britain by 2025.
PepsiCo, Unilever and European supermarket chains Carrefour and Tesco are among firms that signed up to the pilot waste-reduction programme unveiled in Davos this week. It will deliver products such as orange juice in reusable bottles to shoppers and pick up the empties for cleaning and re-use.
The plastic debate has also caught the eye of the insurance industry, which has taken stands at times on environmental issues. Some major insurers refuse to provide cover for new coal-fired power stations due to climate-change concerns, for example.
Unilever and PepsiCo chief executives bristled at Greenpeace’s call at Davos for more bans on plastic packaging, saying that the problem called for multiple solutions, from recycling and re-use to new packaging technologies.
Last month, the EU passed measures to ban throw-away plastic items such as straws and polystyrene cups by 2021. Greenpeace welcomed the move but called at the time for an EU-wide target to reduce consumption of food containers and cups.
Greenpeace said the issue could not be solved through industry initiatives alone.