Environment & Health Opinion

Big brands at Davos are eager for solutions to the plastic waste crisis… which they created

There was a lot of chatter about visions for circular economies and innovation to battle climate change at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

Many interviews of the parka-clad upper echelons of global corporations took place, all of whom were armed with precise messaging to repeat for every journalist who would sit down with them.

plastic debris beach

Plastic debris on beach. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

There were several panels and sessions on the topic of plastic waste, which pulled in the bigwigs, even drawing Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s CEOs onto the same stage, along with Dow Plastic.

I am always glad to see key issues occupy the headlines. However, it feels bizarre, year upon year, to hear hollow promises from corporations saying they are trying to reduce their deleterious impact on the environment while we continue to see them pushing out irresponsible products and packaging.

Accountability is still a vague concept for most of them, even the ones who are going public with their messaging and apparent desperation to appear relevant to social discourse on plastic waste.

It rings insincere to hear heads of companies that are the culprits behind waste in our oceans, now trying to take on the guise of environmental saviours. At the end of the day, aren’t their profits clearly dependent on selling people as many products as quickly as possible?

world economic forum plastics

CEOs of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dow Plastics speak at Davos. Photo: Youtube screenshot.

We live in a world where companies knowingly sell products that they purposefully design for obsolescence, or products that are non-essential or notoriously unhealthy. Often, these products come at the cost of bad working environments in poor communities, and inappropriate depletion of resources in particular environments.

Things will not change unless these corporations and their leaders are willing to compromise their bottom lines for the sake of responsible behaviour towards the environment. Moving products to markets that have no infrastructure to deal with the full life-cycle of those products and their packaging, without a plan to deal with the throwaway culture they actively promote, is irresponsible.

While we are all ultimately responsible for the unsustainable lifestyles and garbage we have created, it isn’t enough to blame governments for the lack of infrastructure or to point fingers solely at rising demand from consumers.

Dow Plastics continues to invest billions in virgin plastic production and seem to be caught awkwardly between wanting to participate in the waste reduction conversation and their profit margins.

Coca Cola and Pepsi are both ostensibly attempting to reduce their plastic waste. One or both of them announced investments in recycling technologies, testing compostable snack bags, and eventually aiming to recover and recycle the majority of single-use plastic bottles in specific countries, all while continuing to sell non-essential sugary beverages in those same bottles despite prevailing knowledge of the problem.

They do this with much success and, as Marion Nestle puts it, an “extraordinary sense of focus.”

juyl 1 recycle green plastic

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Plastic isn’t going out of style any time soon, nor will we be able to find an excellent alternative for some of its essential uses immediately.

I suppose the reality is that we are going to need companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola, and Dow Plastics to fight the monster they have been hugely responsible for creating, and they may well be in the best financial and infrastructural positions to invest in better technology and solutions.

But let’s not just listen to them continuing to push out thoughtless products while simultaneously attempting to show us their new-found halos and prancing to the front of the environmental parade. After all, the “stupid plastic bottles” are all their “fault” as the interviewer in this Bloomberg clip bluntly says.

Big brands at Davos are eager for solutions to the plastic waste crisis... which they created