The largest consumer product makers and retailers in the U.S. are doing a poor job of making their plastic packaging more responsible and financially supporting efforts to boost recycling, according to a new report from socially responsible investment advisory group As You Sow.
The report grades 50 of the largest consumer-facing companies around use of circular models of packaging that "prioritize absolute reduction," evaluating them on categories like packaging design, reusable packaging, recycled content, data disclosure and efforts to improve recycling systems.
The Oakland, Calif.-based group does not seem to be grading on a curve. It gives its highest grade, a B-, to Unilever, while it said that 22 companies received D grades and 15 were given an F.
AYS said Walmart, Kroger, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, Kraft Heinz, and Mondelēz International were the six lowest-ranked companies, by revenue size.
"This report shows that the consumer goods industry is failing to address single-use plastics and take financial responsibility to improve recycling," said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of AYS. "We were unable to identify leadership companies, but rather found scattered leadership actions."
It said overall it found the most progress around redesigning packaging, stated commitments to increase recycled content and supporting recycling.
But it said it found "much more work to be done" to find reusable alternatives to single-use plastics and support policies like extended producer responsibility to support recycling.
Specifically, the group recommended that the large firms set aside 1 percent of annual sales to raise the $12 billion it says is needed to improve recycling infrastructure, as well as steer clear of using flexible plastic until those materials can be recycled.
It recommended that the brand-owning companies prioritize long-term contracts with recycling companies to signal "serious commitment" to using recycled plastics.
"There's a massive amount of work to be done," said MacKerron. "This report provides a blueprint for what companies need to do to take responsibility for their plastic waste and move us to a circular economy for consumer packaging."
A plastics industry trade group, on the other hand, said industry is doing a lot, pointing to $5 billion in private-sector investment in recycling in the U.S. since 2017.
Keith Christman, managing director of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, said replacing plastic packaging with common alternatives would hurt the environment, increasing energy use by 82 percent, nearly double greenhouse gas emissions and increase waste, even accounting for recycling of the other materials.
"The most certain way to preserve plastics' benefits and end waste is to move toward using plastics with greater circularity," he said. "We can achieve this by redesigning plastic packaging for greater efficiency and reuse potential; modernizing our recycling infrastructure through emerging technologies; and adopting new business models that incorporate greater reuse and recycling."
ACC said its member companies have made a public commitment so that all U.S. plastic packaging will be able to be recycled or recovered by 2030, and in fact be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040. It said some of its companies are also founding partners of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
But As You Sow noted that only 13 percent of plastic packaging is currently recycled in the U.S., and it said that virgin plastics production is set to triple globally by 2050, competing with recycled materials.
It also linked plastics use to climate change, saying that by 2050, emissions from plastics could account for 13 percent of the Earth's remaining carbon budget.
The group also said that there's not enough plastic recycled to meet the ambitious commitments from many of the brand-owning companies to dramatically boost their recycled content plastic in packaging.
"To meet the goals, many of which are for 2025, the U.S. recycling rate, which has barely budged over the last decade, would need to more than double in a very short time frame," AYS said. "This would be an unprecedented effort to achieve and represents a core challenge to companies."
It noted some changes, like Coca-Cola Co. dropping its historic opposition to bottle deposit programs and now appearing to support them when they are managed by producers or a consortium of stakeholders.