Phase out plastic by reducing demand for it, replacing it with alternative materials, and holding plastic polluters accountable for the waste they create.
The UN ranks plastic pollution as the second most ominous threat to our planet, right behind climate change. Humans have created over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic to date, and most of it has been thrown away. Made from fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, plastics don’t break down, they just break apart. That means all the plastic ever made is still with us today. It’s in oceans, landfills, streams, and soil, harming and killing wildlife. It’s in our food and water, leaching carcinogens and neurotoxins. The planet is drowning in plastic, and the solution starts at the source: plastic production must peak and go down rapidly. Such a turnaround will take a global, society-wide effort that combines policy change, political pressure, and private sector innovation to reimagine how we live in a world without plastics.
Learn the facts about plastic. While public knowledge and backlash against plastics have grown substantially in recent years, disinformation about how to solve the plastic crisis has long been and continues to be widespread. These are the key facts to know:
- Plastic is made from fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Ninety-eight percent of all plastics are made by heating fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas (watch the process here). Making and incinerating plastic emitted over 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas in 2020 alone. That number is set to more than triple by 2050.
- Plastic pollutes throughout its five-hundred-plus year lifespan. Scientists aren’t sure how long plastic lasts, but estimates are up to five hundred years. Air and water pollution starts in disproportionately lower-income and nonwhite communities surrounding petrochemical plants, leading to myriad health problems. Physical pollution builds up virtually everywhere, from urban centers to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As plastic breaks into microplastics and nanoplastics, it leaches toxic chemicals into soil, water, and food supplies, killing wildlife and harming human health.
- The scale of plastic pollution is massive. Virgin plastic producers and the banks that fund them are the root cause of plastic pollution. Their industry (and demand for their product) has expanded plastic production from 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 to nearly 367 million metric tons as of 2020. Half of the plastic ever produced was made in the last fifteen years, and 60 percent of it has been dumped into the environment—in large part because it was designed to be used only once. Today, a garbage-truck load of plastic enters the ocean every minute.
- Most plastic can’t be (and isn’t) recycled. Many plastics can’t be recycled, while those that can are only recyclable about two or three times before they’re no longer usable. Recycling systems worldwide are inequitable, ineffective, and insufficient. As a result, only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has actually been recycled. See Governance to learn how world leaders can improve waste management, including making polluters pay to clean up their waste.
- Plastic that can’t be recycled could be repurposed. The most sensible thing to do with billions of tons of plastic waste is to solidify it and keep it in place. Nairobi entrepreneur Nzambi Matee does this by recycling plastic waste into bricks that are more durable than concrete and weigh half as much. In this way, incipient microplastic becomes macroplastic. Such repurposing projects should use coatings that prevent UV degradation and breakdown.
- Higher-income countries create the most plastic waste, while lower-income countries pay the price. Just twenty companies are responsible for more than half of all single-use plastic waste, and higher-income countries like the United States and the UK consume it most. They then ship their plastic trash to lower-income countries, where a lack of waste-management resources means much of the plastic must be dumped or burned, releasing toxic chemicals that cause disease and death.
Take political and legal action to stop plastic production. The plastics industry has paid for ad campaigns to convince the public that individual recycling is the key to solving plastic pollution, but pushing for policies that reduce plastic production itself is much more effective. Here’s how communities around the world are doing it, and how you can join in:
- Local residents in Louisiana filed a lawsuit against Formosa Plastics to halt the construction of a plastic refinery in their neighborhood—a win that averted emissions from an estimated 13 million tons of greenhouse gases and 15,400 pounds of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide per year.
- After recognizing that goats provided to local farmers through her NGO were dying from eating plastic bags, this Malawi woman led a group of environmental activists to compel the Malawi High Court to ban single-use thin plastics.
- In 2019, Maine voters elected their first woman governor, Janet Mills, who ran on a platform of strong environmental protections. In 2021, Governor Mills passed the U.S.’s first state-level extended producer responsibility (EPR) law for consumer packaging, a key policy approach that requires companies to pay for the collection, sorting, and recycling of their plastic products.
- These policy resources for activists include sample legislation and comprehensive tool kits for mobilizing your community and leaders around key areas like microplastics, plastic bags, straws, foodware, and bioplastics.
- This guide provides simple organizing tools and example campaigns, including letter-to-the-editor templates and a social media tool kit.
Use your influence to reduce plastic waste where you live, study, work, and shop. Reducing your own plastic consumption is a positive step, but working together with your friends, family and network can multiply the impact. Here are a few ways to do it:
- Ask your local grocer to offer a bulk-goods section where shoppers can use their own containers, and to eliminate single-use plastics offered in-store.
- Ask your favorite eatery to become an Ocean Friendly Restaurant, which commits establishments to reducing as much plastic use and waste as possible.
- Students can join the Green Schools Alliance to learn how to organize at their school to eliminate plastic waste from cafeterias, classrooms, and campuses.
- Ask local music venues to eliminate plastic waste, as Pickathon—a music festival held on an Oregon farm—has done by replacing single-use cups, plates, and cutlery with reusables that can be washed onsite.
- Start a chapter of Boomerang Bags with neighbors, friends, and family to upcycle fabrics into reusable bags and distribute them in your community.
- Team up with coworkers to try these nine steps toward reducing plastic waste in your workplace, including offering reusable water bottle refill stations in-office.
- Challenge friends, family, and coworkers to join you in participating in #PlasticFreeJuly, then help each other carry new habits into the rest of the year.
- Join or organize a plastic cleanup—whether you go plogging, participate in a beach cleanup, or pick up underwater plastic with dive buddies. Document pollution as you go, as the Dutch Litterati did to pressure McDonald’s to reduce their waste.
- Learn how to spot greenwashing in advertising (especially from brands and companies you buy from) and call it out when you see it. A few common giveaways to look out for are vague, overly broad language and a lack of proof of sustainability claims.
Take responsibility for your own plastic consumption and waste. If you have the privilege to choose, don’t buy items packaged in or made with plastics—especially single-use plastics. This guide has resources to help you get started, including a list of reusable replacements for single-use plastic items such as grocery bags, cutlery, and water bottles. Note that reusable items must be reused a certain number of times to be more sustainable—131 times for cotton tote bags and 10-20 times for reusable water bottles. And recycle whatever you can; check this site or ask your local officials to find out what is actually recyclable.
Banks and Investors
End no-strings-attached financing for the plastics industry. Between 2015 and 2019, banks gave top plastic polluters over $1.7 trillion in loans and underwriting—equivalent to Russia’s entire GDP. None of these banks have developed due diligence systems, contingent loan criteria, or financing exclusions. Banks and investors should track and disclose the plastic waste their money is funding, make financing for plastic polluters contingent upon their implementation of best practices, and ultimately divest from virgin plastic producers.
City and State Officials
Incentivize plastic recycling and reduction in public spaces. Deposit return systems (DRS) are a proven and effective way to increase plastic recycling and reduce litter. Cities and states can lead the way by implementing DRS policies and other incentives locally to make it easy for citizens to manage and prevent plastic waste.
- Germany’s Pfand bottle deposit system, which requires shoppers to pay a deposit when purchasing a bottle or can that is refunded once they return the empty container to the store, has driven the national return rate over 98 percent.
- Bee’ah Rewards in Abu Dhabi enters citizens to win prizes like GoPro cameras and smart TVs each time they deposit recyclables in a reverse vending machine.
- This global map of reverse vending machines tracks programs from Mumbai to Edinburgh.
- Eau de Paris offers over a thousand free water-dispensing stations throughout the city, with vending machines selling reusable bottles in high-traffic locations. Paris achieved this by taking back their water rights from private companies, in league with hundreds of other cities turning the tide on water privatization.
- This program in Southern California has installed nearly 120 water-bottle fill stations at schools and popular community facilities.
Become a Zero Waste City. Zero Waste Cities create and implement systems that move from managing waste to phasing it out completely. Check out this Zero Waste Masterplan and follow the lead of these standout cities on their way to zero:
- When the small Japanese village of Kamikatsu was forced to shut down their outdated incinerators in 2000, their only option was to create less trash. Residents began separating their waste into forty-five different categories and dropping off reusable but unwanted items at a “recycling store,” where others could pick up items for free. Today Kamikatsu recycles 81 percent of its waste, compared to Japan’s national rate of around 20 percent.
- The Italian town of Capannori has implemented a “pay-as-you-throw” waste tariff, tax incentives for retailers to reduce packaging, and a municipal reuse center. Read their zero-waste case study here.
- The city of Alaminos is leading zero-waste efforts in the Philippines with a waste-management structure that engages all levels of society, from city government to barangay (the native Tagalog term for a village) leadership to individual citizens.
Protect against microplastics. This report from Environment & Human Health, Inc. provides key recommendations for cities to address microplastic contamination.
- Test municipal drinking water for microplastics and retrofit treatment as needed.
- Conduct street sweeping twice a month to remove tire wear particles—estimated to be one of the largest sources of microplastics entering waterways.
- Evaluate microplastics in treated sewage and upgrade treatment to reduce them.
Scientists & Inventors
Explore ways to prevent, clean up, and reuse plastic waste. Breaking the Plastic Wave, a global analysis using first-of-its-kind modeling, showed it is possible to cut annual flows of plastic into the ocean by about 80 percent in the next twenty years by applying existing solutions and technologies. New innovations are needed to close the gap on the remaining 20 percent.
- Eastman Kodak has a Tennessee plant that can break plastic down to the molecular level, enabling it to be reformulated into new products—and essentially recycled forever.
- This first-of-its-kind study in Sweden discovered that microbes in oceans and soil are evolving to eat plastic, which could help break down plastics into their building blocks so that virgin plastic production is no longer needed.
- Researchers in Indonesia have developed a “sonic cleanup” method that uses sound waves to concentrate and collect microplastics in seawater without the use of expensive filters.
- Mori Food Technology uses naturally derived silk protein to create a protective layer that preserves fresh foods, preventing the need for plastic packaging.
- Sway uses regenerative design to make seaweed-based packaging that can be composted in your backyard.
- Seaweed-based straws from Loliware break down within hours.
- Sustainable packaging start-up Notpla uses seaweed and plants to make biodegradable versions of common takeout containers like boxes and sachets.
Use your art to inspire action. Art can break through the noise to illuminate the plastic problem and mobilize people around solutions.
- Canadian sculpture artist Benjamin Von Wong built a giant faucet pouring out a stream of plastic waste three stories high. His message: #TurnOffThePlasticTap. The project website acts as a hub for visitors to take action.
- Mexico City artist Alejandro Durán creates colorful mosaics out of plastic trash that’s washed up on the coast of Sian Ka’anone, one of Mexico's largest federally protected nature reserves. Over the course of the project, Durán has identified plastic waste from fifty-eight nations and territories on six continents.
- U.S. artist Tess Felix’s Ocean Hero series uses plastic debris to create classical portraits of activists and leaders working to clean up the ocean, from oceanographer Sylvia Earle to Pope Francis.
Identify, disclose, and track your plastic footprint. Companies can start shrinking their plastic footprint by first finding out what it looks like and where it’s coming from—whether it’s across a supply chain or within an office. Create transparency by communicating findings to the public, setting realistic, measurable targets, and remaining accountable through regular reporting.
- Ampliphi is a plastic management and accounting platform that supports tracking, reduction, and reporting.
- Plastic Disclosure Project works with manufacturers, services, and municipalities to measure and understand their plastic footprint.
- The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circulytics goes beyond tracking plastic waste to measure a company’s progress toward designing waste out of their business model—moving toward what’s commonly called a circular or closed-loop production model.
- This piece breaks down the benefits of plastic footprint tracking and reduction, from increasing market share to opening doors to better funding opportunities.
- In 2019, Coca-Cola revealed for the first time that it produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging a year—equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. They are one of thirty-one companies including Mars, Nestlé, and Danone that disclosed their plastic footprint through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s drive for transparency.
- Amazon has declined to reveal their plastic footprint despite calls to do so from shareholders and became a cautionary tale at the end of 2021 when Oceana did it for them. Their report estimated that packaging from Amazon deliveries alone created 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2020, rising by 29 percent as online ordering skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Design plastic out of products and processes. Whether redesigning existing products or creating something new, companies should focus on eliminating virgin plastic and using alternative materials or recycled plastic when plastic-like functionality is needed. These products replace plastic items without using any plastics at all:
- Swedish supermarkets are replacing plastic produce stickers with laser labeling that uses bright light to etch PLU numbers directly onto fruits and vegetables, saving 200 kilometers (135 miles) of plastic 30 centimeters wide and generating less than 1 percent of the carbon emissions needed to produce a sticker of similar size.
- Planera created the world’s only certified flushable menstrual pad, replacing plastic pads that take approximately five hundred years to degrade with plant-based ones that break down in about thirty days.
- These reusable sterilization pouches for medical instruments are one answer to reducing plastic waste in industries that rely on plastics for safety.
Help customers embrace a new normal without plastics. Companies can take simple steps to make adopting new habits easy, frictionless, and even fun for customers.
- Japan increased the refusal rate of plastic bags to 40 percent after six months of cashiers simply asking people whether they wanted a bag.
- barePack in Singapore allows users to order meals online that are delivered in waste-free reusable packaging.
- Grocery stores like Kroger post signs above shopping carts in their parking lot reminding shoppers to bring their reusable bags inside with them.
- Algramo in Chile has created a vending-machine system that dispenses liquid detergent and other cleaning solutions directly into reusable containers.
Don’t wait for a binding global treaty to take action. In March 2022, world leaders at the UN Environment Assembly agreed to draw up a historic treaty on plastic waste by 2024. Such unified regulations are in companies’ best interest: for example, because Nestlé sells products in 187 countries, they must also comply with 187 different sets of national regulations on plastic packaging. Businesses can reach out to work with the UNEP to shift away from single-use plastics across their supply chain here.
Coordinate systems change on a global scale. While a review of the last twenty years of plastic policy from around the world shows a clear upward trend in plastic regulations, current government and industry commitments will still only reduce marine plastic litter by 7 percent by 2040, due in large part to the piecemeal, disjointed nature of existing efforts. Across the thirty-six international plastic policies agreed upon since 2000, none include a global, binding, specific, and measurable target to reduce plastic pollution. Leaders urgently need to work together across borders globally to enact comprehensive, coordinated reform of regulatory frameworks, business models, and funding mechanisms. Join these efforts that are already under way to unify a global response:
- Support and implement the UN’s binding global treaty. More than 100 countries issued statements in favor of the global, binding treaty that leaders from 173 nations agreed to develop at the UN Environment Assembly in the spring of 2022. Governments should support the development of the treaty, act now to reduce single use plastics while the treaty is under development, and cooperate with the treaty once it is completed in 2024.
- Back and implement the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. The Japanese government led the creation of the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision in 2019, which commits G20 countries to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050. While the commitment is not legally binding, eighty-six countries and regions have backed it. This piece offers a powerful policy road map to put the vision into action.
Hold the private sector accountable. While ending plastic pollution will require interventions at all stages of the plastic life cycle, scientists and advocacy groups have identified ending production of any new plastics as the logical first step. Scaling down plastic production and designing products for reuse will stymie the flow of disposable plastic products into the environment at the source. It also addresses toxic air pollution.
- Make polluters pay. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation makes companies responsible for their products for their entire life cycle—including paying for their disposal. These case studies show how countries around the world, including Japan, Colombia, and Norway, are putting EPR laws into action.
- Tax virgin plastics. Proponents of taxing plastic at the source suggest it can incentivize plastic polluters to shift to recycled plastic or plastic alternatives. House Democrats in the U.S. have proposed a tax on virgin plastics in single-use products, with plans to invest the proceeds into ocean conservation.
- Work with Plastic Drawdown. The Brantas River in Indonesia provides the region with 98 percent of its drinking water, but is one of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the world. The Indonesian government worked with Plastic Drawdown to identify diapers as the biggest source of plastic waste in their rivers, and will now employ six hundred local women to make reusable diapers—stopping 29,200,000 disposable diapers entering the Brantas annually. Learn more about how Plastic Drawdown helps governments map and manage their plastic pollution here.
- Prioritize equity in plastic bans. Plastic bag bans are one of the most common types of plastic legislation, but they must be deployed with equity in mind. Women and girls in Senegal took to the streets to protest a plastic bag ban they said would disproportionately impact their small businesses selling water sachets—a reminder that such operations rely on upstream innovation from packaging manufacturers to develop plastic alternatives. Reference these ten principles for centering inclusion in plastic policy.
Improve waste management systems. Governments can help manage plastics that are already polluting urban and natural environments. These policies are key:
- Expand waste management on the local level. Expand waste separation and collection, and support mechanical recycling—especially for low- and middle-income countries. Control the disposal of nonrecyclable plastics and manage microplastics in waterways.
- Incentivize recycling through deposit return systems (DRS). To support industry pledges and government initiatives to increase recycled content in new products, we need more and better “feedstock.” DRS incentives are a proven method of both reducing litter and building up plastics to be recycled. The Bali Plastic Exchange is a creative take on DRS: local residents can collect plastic trash that is sold to a recycling company and receive rice in return—a critical lifeline as food prices rise.
- Recognize waste pickers. The role of waste pickers—informal workers (often Indigenous people) who collect, sort, recycle, and sell materials that others have thrown away—is undervalued. A recent agreement at UNEA was the first time waste pickers have been recognized in an environmental resolution and represents a critical step forward in safeguarding human rights. This guide provides legal context and case studies on countries that have already moved to recognize this often overlooked group.
- Intercept and clean up marine plastic pollution. Between 500,000 to 1,000,000 tons of commercial fishing gear gets lost at sea every year, making it the biggest plastic polluter in the ocean. While individual fishermen around the world are doing their part to intercept plastic waste—including villagers in Kerala, who collect plastic in their nets to be recycled into roads—the fishing industry must step up to design better waste management infrastructure into their process. This report provides a comprehensive look at both the problem and policy solutions.
- Manage your own waste. Require producers to take responsibility for the waste they create and stop shipping it in low-income countries and observe prior consent.
Makers and funders of virgin plastics: Petrochemical companies and the banks that fund them produce 90 percent of all single-use plastic waste generated globally. This website allows you to call for change in less than thirty seconds with predrafted social media posts that tag these top nine plastic polluters and funders:
- Top plastic polluters: ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Sinopec
- Top plastic funders: Barclay’s Bank, HSBC, Bank of America, Vanguard, BlackRock, Capital Group
Plastic power users: Ten logos show up the most on plastic trash in the middle of the ocean and along coastlines. Let these companies know you want to see them reduce and ultimately eliminate the plastic waste they create:
- Coca-Cola: Reach CEO James Quincey at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @CocaCola.
- PepsiCo: Reach CEO Ramon Laguarta at ramon.Laguarta@pepsico.com or tweet @PepsiCo.
- Nestlé: Reach CEO Mark Schneider on LinkedIn or tweet @Nestle.
- Unilever: Reach CEO Alan Jope at email@example.com or tweet @Unilever.
Jenna Jambeck (UGA College of Engineering)
Rebecca Altman (environmental sociologist and writer)
Nzambi Matee (founder, Gjenge Makers)
Toby Gardener (senior research fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute)
How Bad Are Plastics for the Environment, Really? (Rebecca Altman)
Source of Plastic Waste (Plastic Waste Makers Index)
In Images: Plastic is Forever (United Nations)
Pollution Is Colonialism (Max Liboiron)
The Story of Plastic (The Story of Stuff Project)
Environmental Justice and Plastic Pollution Animation (UN Environment Programme)
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