Plastic Pollution: Are Food Companies 'Behind The Curve'?

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021 | 1167 Views

The plastics problem has reached crisis point. The powerful imagery of marine wildlife entangled in plastic waste is just the tip of the iceberg. Microplastics have been found deep in the oceans, in arctic snow, Antarctic ice, shellfish, salt and beer.

Research on the potential health hazards lurking in everyday packaging is accumulating. Plastic Packaging has become a public enemy— and the packaged food and drink sector are in the spotlight. Blue Chip manufacturers and grocery retailers(or “Big Food’ as we term them in this article) face the ever-worsening situation of plastic-related risk.

ClientEarth is an environmental law charity organisation that uses legislation to enforce policies that protect the planet and its ecosystems. It recently released a report with regards to Big Food and the plastic-related risk.

Despite legal obligations to disclose material risks to investors and other stakeholders as well as the face of warnings from market specialists, rating agencies, investors and financial institutions reinforcing the materiality of plastic-related risks, many names in Big Food are not reporting information about these risks to stakeholders. Big Food is also not doing enough to mitigate these risks by addressing their addiction to single-use plastics, with many treating the issue as a PR problem rather than a serious source of risk to their business.

The plastic-free movement has mobilised at an unprecedented rate, with Big Food at the forefront of these criticisms in the plastic supply -chain.  With millennials’ purchasing choices now focused on sustainability, as well as increased attention from climate activists, understanding what actions companies should take to reduce their plastic footprint is essential if they want to ensure compliance with the legal obligations.

With the walls closing in on single-use plastic, the investment community must act now to:

  • Demand more transparency on their exposure to risks relating to single-use plastics,
  • Challenge the ambition of corporate targets,
  • Scrutinise the adequacy of policies in place to achieve them.

Rather than investing in these legitimate plastic-reducing efforts and incorporating re-use and refill systems, companies are taking the shortcut with these ‘false solutions’.

False solutions such as:

  • Technologies that are unproven at scale,
  • Waste management processes for plastics that raises serious environmental concerns,
  • Substituting one single-use material for another,
  • “Clean-up” activities that do nothing to address the source of plastic waste,
  • “Plastic-offsetting” schemes hampered by the same limitations as carbon offsetting,
  • “Downcycling” plastic products into materials that cannot be then recycled themselves.

Surprisingly, most investors of food companies and other stakeholders are uninformed of these plastic-related financial risks that not only concern their investments but that they are unaware that they are part of the plastic pollution problem.  ClientEarth explored this knowledge gap in their 2018 report titled ‘risk unwrapped’.

With each disturbing revelation about the environmental costs of plastic waste in the environment, consumer concern escalates. Increased awareness of the social costs of accumulating plastic waste is compounding the links between plastic and human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Council describes plastics as “an urgent and global…threat to human rights”.

Whose responsibility is it anyway? 

It is everyone who is involved in the processing and production of food packaging which refers to manufacturers, investors, consumers, and the government legislation board.

In the report by ClientEarth, they have proposed solutions that are comprehensive using a plastic-risk model. They have categorised the solutions according to the players involved and have clearly explained the ways in which Big Food companies and investors could go about shifting their manufacturing process that would not affect the climate and contribute to pollution.

But does reducing plastic in packaging risk exacerbate the environmental problems of food waste?

Studies​ that have shown that the rise in the use of plastic packaging has not reduced levels of food waste, but has grown alongside it, Rosa Pritchard claimed there are complex reasons why food waste occurs. “Packaging is not always used to preserve the life of food, and in some cases, drives food waste by encouraging people to buy more than they need.”

Hence, she, Plastics Lawyer mentions that recycling is no panacea, companies should integrate recycling targets into their plastics policies, but not limit themselves to this. “Plastics cannot be infinitely recycled, the toxicity of recycled plastics for food applications is of concern, plus the infrastructure challenges mean that just because it is recyclable in theory, it is not always in practice.”


References of content:

[1] ClientEarth Report Sep 2021: material issues big food and the rise of plastic-related risk.

[2] Original Article Source: Food companies ‘behind the curve’ on plastic pollution, campaigners claim  By Oliver Morrison


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