Marine pollution by plastic waste has developed into a serious threat, and corporations must now formulate long-term resource strategies, such as expanded use of recyclables.

Companies that use plastic in product containers, packaging, or other ways are reviewing and revamping their resource strategies.

Unilever has announced plans to use only recyclable and reusable plastic containers by 2025, and switch to biodegradable materials. In addition, a minimum of 25% of all plastic used will be recycled material.

One of the biggest issues facing humanity today

Nestlé also plans to switch over to completely recyclable or reusable packaging material where plastic is used. Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider comments “Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today.”

Marine plastic waste is the key factor in motivating the companies to take action. Plastic waste such as single-use plastic shopping bags and drink bottles is a major cause of marine pollution, and companies using large amounts of plastic are facing social condemnation as a result.

If floating plastic is swallowed by fish or birds it is also likely to have an adverse effect on the ecosystem. Microplastic in particular (particles of 5 mm or less in size) easily absorbs hazardous substances, which can then accumulate in living tissue and lead to severe damage to the organism. Under ultraviolet irradiation and wave force, larger pieces of plastic eventually degrade into microplastic, so a wide range of companies and products are directly or indirectly involved.

The movement to regulate plastics is gaining momentum globally. The major targets are disposable plastic items like shopping bags, food and drink containers, straws, cups, and plates.

A report by the International Environmental Technology Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme shows that shopping bags, for example, are being regulated in over 60 nations and regions through policies including charging purchase fees, taxation, and banning their manufacture, sale, and use. In the European Union a proposal was submitted in May to regulate ten plastic items including food containers, drink caps, and cotton swabs.

Companies manufacturing daily-use items and foodstuffs are rushing to implement policy changes before the regulations are adopted. The first steps are increasing reuse and recycling of plastic containers and packaging, minimizing the amount of waste plastic reaching the ocean.

The new “Love Beauty and Planet” brand of shampoo, conditioner, and other care products introduced by Unilever in 2017 uses containers of 100% recycled material. The REN skincare line released in the UK in August 2018 also includes a body wash with a 100% recyclable material container. Even better, 20% of it is made of plastic waste collected from ocean, beach, and river areas by a non-government organization. The firm plans to utilize recycled materials for additional brands in 2019.

Unilever’s haircare products, including shampoo and conditioner, with containers of 100% recyclable material.
Unilever’s haircare products, including shampoo and conditioner, with containers of 100% recyclable material.

There are limits, however, to how much a single firm can do to ensure a steady supply of recyclable material: revolution at the industry level is needed. Cooperative work is under way now with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes the “circular economy” in Europe, to develop a Global Plastics Protocol.

Consumers use products from many companies, however, and so Unilever hopes to create global standards for recyclable plastic definitions, usable materials, and labelling to facilitate sorted collection.

Rising impact on investor evaluations

Investors are also keeping a close watch on the marine plastic waste issue, worried that it will affect company ratings and stock prices. It seems likely that corporate response to the issue—or lack thereof—will be another factor for consideration when evaluating investment opportunities.

Miki Kanoh, executive officer group head Corporate Affairs Group, Marketing & Communications Division at Nestlé Japan, confirms “Stakeholder interest in the marine plastic waste issue is rising, and corporate response is clearly affecting investment decisions.”

It is difficult to imagine that all plastics will be banned immediately, but it is essential that corporations establish long-term resource strategies, including such policies as expanding the use of recyclable materials.