Author: Rica Santos | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D. Candidate 2019 | Posted: January 25, 2019 | Download PDF
In October 2018, a study by the nonprofit Greenpeace in conjunction with the movement Break Free From Plastic made international headlines, calling out companies that are the biggest contributors to the worldwide plastic pollution problem. The study involved 239 beach cleanups in 42 countries and catalogued over 187,851 pieces of washed up plastic. The study also effectively placed pressure on corporations to respond to their findings the study also called out companies by including a brand audit.
The brand audit concluded that products from the top three companies whose products appeared most often as plastic pollution on beaches (Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi) comprised 14 percent of branded items found in beach cleanups worldwide. The study urged, “Responsibility for this plastic pollution problem lies not with individual ‘litterbugs’, but with corporate polluters who must adopt sustainable solutions and systems to stop the crisis.”
What’s at Stake: Human Dignity
The dignity of all people is linked to not having the oceans, beaches, and rivers — where fishers earn livelihoods, where children play, where tourists support local economies — inundated with plastic. Reducing plastic pollution is an issue of economics, health, and equity. People who live in coastal areas should not shoulder the burden of the world’s pollution. And those who live far away should recognize that they contribute to the problem and that they have a responsibility to solve it. The world has become too small, and the global population too interdependent (flora and fauna included), to think of plastic pollution as someone else’s problem.
Though governments should certainly act to protect their constituents’ dignity, they move too slowly to coordinate across the massive global scale on which plastic moves. Companies are better resourced to tackle the problem, in terms of existing infrastructure, knowledge of the industry and their own products, and their ability to connect with consumers all over the world. Because companies are motivated to increase profits and improve their reputation and brand recognition, they stand to benefit from investing in solutions to plastic pollution. And they are more likely than governments to spend and innovate to get there.
Who Can Help Right Now: Companies
Multinational corporations, like top-plastic-pollution-producers Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi, should proactively self-regulate. They can raise industry standards by their own design, in order to reduce their adverse impacts in plastic pollution while remaining competitive. Further, they should use their leverage with their business partners, the governments where they operate, and their customers to reduce the incidence of plastic pollution at all points in the lifecycle of their products.
Companies are morally responsible. Perhaps for now, moral obligations are not legally binding, but amorality as a business model is neither sustainable nor (except for the extremely myopic) sensible. The companies directly contribute to plastic pollution through their packaging choices.
Currently, consumers who live in places without recycling facilities cannot properly dispose of the packaging. Maybe they’re not demanding such capability, due to a number of factors including poor environmental education. Their consumption choices, moreover, are constrained (these companies’ market share is enormous) so not all consumers can voice their concerns by refusing to buy unsustainable products. Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Abigail Aguilar frames the issue: “When we throw something away, there is no ‘away.’ . . . [G]lobal corporations are locking us into cheap, disposable plastics, rather than innovating and finding solutions.”
Companies can make the choice now — design sustainable packaging — and have a big impact. Certain big offenders have pledged to package products more sustainably, probably due to increasing media coverage exposing their roles in worldwide plastic pollution, and pressure from each other. Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi have publicly announced their goals of redesigning their plastic products to achieve recyclability, the elimination of unnecessary packaging, and better incorporation of recycled material in the next ten to fifteen years.
The Future: Unknown
Whether these commitments will result in actual change for the countries who see the biggest plastic pollution is still unknown. Success will depend on the resources that companies dedicate toward finding solutions, which in turn is driven by the pressure on them to keep their promises. Nevertheless, we should aspire to a better world than one where we consume with abandon, and in tacit acceptance of millions of tons of plastic washing up in others’ backyards and collecting in the oceans we depend on.
 Nestlé Ranked Among Top Plastic Polluters Worldwide, swissinfo.ch, Oct. 9, 2018, available at https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/business/greenpeace-study_nestl%C3%A9-ranked-among-top-plastic-polluters-worldwide/44462810.
 Branded: In Search of the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters 1, Break Free From Plastic (2018), available at https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/globalbrandauditreport2018/ [hereinafter Break Free From Plastic Report].
 Break Free From Plastic Report.
 Laura Parker, Beach Clean-Up Study Shows Global Scope of Plastic Pollution, National Geographic, Oct. 10, 2018, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/greenpeace-beach-cleanup-report-highlights-ocean-plastic-problem/.
 Break Free From Plastic Report.
 See Using Leverage in Business Relationships to Reduce Human Rights Risks, Shift (2013), available at https://www.shiftproject.org/media/resources/docs/Shift_leverageUNGPs_2013.pdf.
 Elliot Gardner, Nestle, Unilever and a Polluted Beach in the Philippines, Packaging Gateway, Oct. 16, 2017, available at https://www.packaging-gateway.com/features/nestle-unilever-polluted-beach-philippines/.
 Parker, supra note 4.