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A New Study Found 20 Companies Produce Half the World's Plastic Waste

A new study found just 20 companies are fueling more than half of the single-use plastic waste in the world.

Written by
Kristine Nguyen

Sometimes, as imperfect environmentalists, it's easy to become preoccupied with our own plastic consumption. We might be overwhelmed with whether or not the box of pasta we love is lined with plastic, or if that shirt we like at the store will shed micro-plastics when we wash it. It feels like every decision we make is scrutinized. When we're exposed to jarring statistics everyday—like how landfills received 27 million tons of plastic in 2018—how could they not be?

It's at times like these that we must remember that we, as the consumers, can't blame ourselves for occasionally taking part in single-use plastic waste. It's nearly impossible not to. In reality, we're not even half of who to blame. A report published by Australia's Minderoo Foundation found just 20 polymer producers produce 55 percent of all single-use plastic waste generated globally. This includes the American companies ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical Co. To make matters even worse, the top 100 polymer producers accounted for 90 percent.

It's not just the companies that are contributing to single-use plastic waste, either. There are major banks and global investors that finance it. The top 20 list for banks financing single-use plastic waste included some household names, such as Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

According to the report, the use of single-use plastics has increased exponentially over the last 30 years. And it's still cheaper today to produce these single-use plastics using fossil fuels than from "green" feedstocks, like recycled plastic. This, combined with lax regulations and widespread mismanagement of plastic waste, is what drives the single-use waste crisis. If this growth continues, single-use plastic production could account for more than 10 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions by 2050. Yikes.

So, What's the Solution?

The authors say this is the shared responsibility of both businesses and policy-makers. "The solutions will need to include and improve the working conditions of millions of people who already play a pivotal role in the economy, informally collecting and trading plastic waste in developing countries," the authors wrote. "And they will also need to consider the greenhouse emissions of single-use plastics across their life cycle, and mitigate contributions to climate change—e.g., by switching to sustainable bio-based feedstocks."

Companies will also need to transition into a new mode of production that isn't fueling more waste. "At the root of the problem are the companies that continue to produce more polymers made from fossil fuels. Industry needs to transition from this linear mode of production to a circular model," the authors wrote. "Where recycled polymer production stimulates functioning commodity markets for single-use plastic waste; where there is a strong commercial incentive to collect all the plastics we throw away; and where, ultimately, we eliminate plastic pollution."

What You Can Do as a Consumer

While these large companies need to be held accountable and make changes in order to protect the planet, there are some changes you can make in your own life, too.

1. Use Your Voice

Don't be afraid to be vocal about your thoughts on these matters. Making your voice heard is one of the most important parts of being a planet champion and advocating for a better Earth. Call companies out on social media when they're being wasteful, and give them advice on how they can do better. If they're getting some heat, they're bound to make changes; they know we hold the power in our dollars.

2. Spend Your Money Wisely

Speaking of holding the power in our dollars: Don't support companies that don't have the same sustainability standards as you. Sure, you might like the product. But if a company doesn't seem to be making any changes to better the planet, start spending your money on a more sustainable brand that's doing the work. There are eco-friendly options for nearly everything you need, from laundry detergent to coffee.

3. Limit Your Own Single-Use Plastic

These companies need to quit producing single-use plastic—and we've gotta quit using it. It's nearly impossible to give up plastic altogether, and no one's perfect. But there are plenty of ways you can cut back. Swap Ziploc bags for Stasher bags or thrifted tupperware, carry around a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic options, and try to avoid plastic packaging by shopping from a store's bulk section instead. It's easier than you think, and every small step makes a difference.

4. Green Your Finances

As shown in this report, banks are part of the problem: Some of the top ones, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, finance single-use plastic waste. Quit giving money to financial institutions that aren't aligned with your values, and switch to ones that are. Take Aspiration, for example: It's a certified B-Corp and a member of 1% for the Planet. It always puts the planet first and never funds fossil fuel companies.