Recently, in September 2019, Facebook announced a ban on single-use plastic bottles on its campuses worldwide. The company received widespread praise for this step, and Von Hernandez, a 2003 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, hopes that it leads other corporations to follow suit and make a commitment to banning not only the use of—but also the production of—single-use plastics globally.
Hernandez received the Goldman Prize for leading a campaign in the Philippines that secured the world’s first national ban on incinerators. Incinerators create toxic waste that is then released into the air and buried in landfills, which leach into the water supply and oceans. The ash produced in the process contains heavy metals that are linked to birth defects and other severe negative health outcomes.
Von Hernandez with Richard Goldman at the 2003 Goldman Prize ceremony in San Francisco
Hernandez parlayed the visibility and support he received for winning the Prize into his next pursuit—he is now the global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic. The international organization’s goal is to drastically reduce the production of plastic pollution, which causes irreparable harm to oceans, sea and land animals, and humans. For them, the solution includes convincing individuals—and workplaces—to change consumption habits and replace plastics with reusable alternatives. They also seek to apply pressure throughout each step along the plastic supply chain, from production to disposal.
“When we created Break Free From Plastic, we agreed that to achieve our vision of a future free from plastic pollution, we needed to look at the issue in a holistic way,” Hernandez says. “This means looking at plastic at the different stages of the life-cycle, and not just treating it as a waste management or consumer responsibility issue, which is what the plastic industry wants. Looking at it that way takes the industry off the hook and allows it to continue producing even more plastics.”
Here are a few disturbing facts on plastic:
- If there are no drastic interventions, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
- Today, the world consumes an estimated five trillion plastic bags per year and only about 1% is recycled.
- Nearly a million plastic bottles per minute are produced—about 480 million single-use plastic bottles in 2016.
- Plastic takes years to break down. The Marine Conservancy estimates that it takes 450 years to break down a plastic bottle and 400 years to break down disposable diapers.
For Hernandez, turning his attention to plastics was a natural outgrowth of his work banning waste incineration, as both are forms of hazardous waste—usually created by multinational companies in the Global North and disproportionately impacting the Global South.
Hernandez says that when large-scale awareness of the damage caused by plastics began, the onus was placed on developing countries, mainly in the Global South. However, he says, that is a false narrative. “The crisis is being driven by multinationals,” he says.
Break Free From Plastic differs from other groups fighting for a plastic ban in its focus on the entire value chain. Many people equate plastic waste—think all those plastic bottles and six-pack rings strewn on beaches—with their negative impact on oceans, but that is just one byproduct of the problem.
“I think it’s fair to say that the issue of marine litter was initially driving the agenda on plastics,” he says. “But, more and more, people are waking up to the reality that this issue is much broader than that. Plastic pollution is a public health issue. It is a climate issue. And an environmental justice issue. We need to consider the entire plastic life-cycle, from the extraction of fossil fuels, to the transformation of fossil fuel by-products into plastics by petrochemical plants, and the manufacture and consumption of various plastic products, which leads to waste disposal, including incineration of plastic that releases the most toxic substances known to science. Then there is still leakage into the environment and the ocean, where these waste plastics, along with their chemical additives, break down into microplastics, which are, in turn, ingested by fish, birds, and marine life before ending up on our dinner plates.”
The greatest culprits driving the increase in the production of plastics are the oil and gas companies together with their petrochemical industry affiliates (including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and other oil and gas companies), as 99% of plastics are created from fossil fuels. 
Therefore, Hernandez says, the responsibility for reducing plastic waste should not lie with the individual (although he certainly encourages everyone to reduce their personal use of plastic products), or even local governments, but rather with the fossil fuel industry and the multinational corporations whose business models are heavily dependent on throw-away and disposable plastic. According to the brand audits conducted by Break Free From Plastic members around the world, consumer goods companies—like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle—are among the most prolific plastic polluters across the planet.
During the organization’s brand audits, members document the plastic production and distribution by a company and publicize this information. In 2019, thousands of people conducted 700 brand audits in 84 countries (the organization has created a toolkit for those who want to participate).
“We need to challenge the current narrative on plastics and hold corporations to account for their role in perpetuating this crisis,” he says. “The real solution does not lie in more recycling or better waste management; it lies in reducing the amounts of plastic being produced and deployed into our societies. We need to compel companies and retailers to significantly invest in alternative delivery systems, especially refill and reuse models, which do not rely on throwaway plastic to bring their goods to the consumer.”
Hernandez notes that “companies cannot say they are concerned about the problem and yet continue to justify their reliance on the same ‘disposable plastic’ business model. Recycling will never be enough to solve this crisis. Industry knows very well that its track record on this has been dismal, with less than 10% of plastics produced since the 1950s having been recycled.”
Break Free From Plastic also frames the problem as an environmental justice issue. Companies often locate petrochemical plants and refineries in or near poor communities—including in the United States, Hernandez says.
Governments must play a role, too, by enacting the right set of policies that place responsibility for this problem mainly onto corporations, which have been knowingly creating and instigating this crisis. Banning single-use and problematic plastics is a step in the right direction.
Hernandez also points to a wave of policy changes that resulted, at least in part, from education by and advocacy from Break Free From Plastic. Earlier this year, the European Union adopted a directive to ban single-use plastics and require corporate responsibility around the issue.
Hernandez notes that the credibility and support generated from winning the Goldman Prize has been a critical factor in his ability to grow the movement. “The Prize is part of who I am,” he says. “The Prize has given me a bigger platform to work on these issues on a global, not just national, level. The Prize itself has been associated with the need to defend the rights of communities and their struggles to oppose environmental injustice, wherever that happens. For this reason, I am always honored to be carrying the badge of the Goldman Prize.”
Several other Prize winners are currently engaged in fighting plastic pollution, says Hernandez. He works with Yuyun Ismawati (2009) of Indonesia, who is leading a national coalition working to implement zero waste programs in her country. Other Prize winners who are active members of Break Free From Plastic include Prigi Arisandi (2011), also from Indonesia, Bobby Peek (1998) from South Africa, Russia’s Olga Speranskaya (2009), and Ricardo Navarro (1995) from the El Salvador.
Together with allies in the movement, Hernandez is encouraged by the impact that the movement has made, and he sees that the momentum for change on this issue is likely to escalate further.
“Just over the last three years, the narrative around plastic has started to shift. An increasing number of governments are taking action against single-use plastics and our movement itself has been experiencing phenomenal growth,” he says. “For us, these developments show that people want real, lasting, and systemic change. We are hopeful that together with other movements, we will be able to transform the system into one that is respectful of our ecological limits and the rights of communities and future generations.”
Young people are integral in catalyzing positive change in grassroots movements. In the effort to push for a #BreakFreeFromPlastic, college students are making big moves – and winning! Hear from one of the student organizers who recently succeeded in pushing Eckerd College in Florida to ditch single-use plastics, and learn how you can follow their lead. (Hint: brand audits help!)
In September 2018, the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) together with Student PIRGs released a detailed #BreakFreeFromPlastic Campus Pledge and accompanying toolkit to support colleges and universities in transitioning toward a long-term elimination of all unnecessary single-use plastics. In just over one year, student organizers successfully pushed two U.S. campuses to sign the pledge to go plastic-free. In July 2019, College of the Atlantic in Maine became the first U.S. college to sign the pledge, committing to eliminate all single-use plastics from their campus by 2025. They were soon followed by Eckerd College, which will be the first U.S. college to enact the pledge. Starting January 2020, this Florida liberal arts college will no longer purchase most non-essential single-use plastics using college funds.
Originally inspired by PLAN’s #BFFP campaign and seeded by Will and Alexandria, two students affiliated with Florida’s Student PIRG network, the initiative was quickly brought to Eckerd College’s Reduce Single-Use program to join forces. Over the course of many months, organizers from PLAN, Student PIRGs, and the Reduce Single-Use Project worked together to get this pledge signed.
“This was a huge time commitment,” said Alexandria, “especially on top of school and everything that comes with being a student, but this is something I am completely dedicated to so it was absolutely worth it.”
Her hard work paid off! Thanks to this collaboration with Florida Student PIRGs and PLAN’s #BFFP campaign, Eckerd College’s students have led the way to a comprehensive elimination of single-use plastics through academic courses, infrastructure changes, and campus-wide purchasing guidelines.
Alexandria Gordon is Eckerd College’s BFFP Campaign Coordinator, working with FLOPIRG and PLAN to push Eckerd College towards these institutional changes on campus. One of the ways she has been working on this is through brand audits! For #BreakFreeFromPlastic’s 2019 global brand audit, Eckerd students picked up and audited just under 400 pounds of waste.
“It is always so interesting and rewarding to see the biggest polluters on campus. The two biggest brands that were shocking to me were Coca-Cola and Mars… I truly believe that brand audits are a powerful way to begin making change and love being a part of that process,” Alexandria said.
Originally from Houston, Texas, this sophomore is double majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science. After graduation, she hopes to continue doing environmental organizing/environmental justice work – look out world!
Inspired by Alexandria to push your college campus to go plastic-free? Great news, there are so many resources to help you get started! Break Free From Plastic just launched a brand new Plastic-Free Campuses website. Start there by signing up to join the network! You can also check out the Plastic-Free Campus Manual, developed by PLAN with support from the Plastic Pollution Coalition. PLAN’s website has a series of resources for colleges and universities such as campus toolkits, zero waste assessment frameworks, student summits, leadership trainings, and more.
And finally, some words of advice from Alexandria for other college students getting started.
“At the beginning of this process, I definitely wish I would have known to work with, use, and trust my surroundings. This is my biggest piece of advice to other college students! There was no way I could’ve gotten this pledge signed this quickly and efficiently if I was only working by myself. Instead, I used the resources from PIRG, PLAN, and our Reduce Single Use Project (funded out of the NOAA Marine Debris Program) to push this initiative further. It helped monumentally to be involved with an organization like PIRG from the get-go, so if you have the opportunity to learn from other professionals in this area, take it! It is also so important for other college students and anyone doing this work to always remember and remind ourselves of our why. At times work like this can seem endless and maybe even impossible. For me, when times got really difficult and I was extremely stressed out and just not sure where this would go, I reminded myself of why I am doing this in the first place. That always without fail encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, and push for the outcome I wanted. Good luck to anyone else looking to working on a similar project!”
Delivery parcels line a street in Beijing on Nov 12, the day following the annual Singles Day shopping spree. [Photo by Fu Jing/chinadaily.com.cn]
A new report sheds light on the increasing environmental costs incurred from China’s booming express delivery market.
Less than 5 percent of cardboard boxes used in express delivery packaging were reused, and nearly all plastic packaging ended up in landfills, according to the report, which surveyed 37 universities and residential communities as well as four e-commerce businesses in 18 provinces or cities from July to September.
The carbon emissions from delivery packaging services amounted to 13 million tons last year, requiring 710 million trees to neutralize, according to the report. Without more environmentally friendly policies, emissions will more than quadruple by 2025.
The report was released jointly by the environmental group Greenpeace East Asia, the All-China Environment Federation and Break Free From Plastic China on Nov 11, the annual Singles Day shopping spree.
China’s express delivery industry has grown 41.5 percent annually over the past 30 years. With the country now the world’s largest express delivery market, the amount of packaging waste has also surged.
More than 900 tons of delivery packaging materials were used in 2018, compared with 2 tons in 2000, according to the report.
“With the Singles Day shopping carnival in full swing, we should not ignore the huge environmental and resource costs behind the miracle of China’s e-commerce and express delivery market,” said Tang Damin, a plastic campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.
Delivery packaging falls into two major categories – paper and plastic, according to the report. Paper-made boxes account for 44 percent of all delivery packaging by number, and plastic bags make up for 34 percent of the total, with the rest being foam boxes, woven bags and other packaging types.
The report said around 80 percent of cardboard boxes were recycled, with 15 percent mixed with waste, and nearly all the plastic packaging ended up burned or in landfills.
Nearly 1.4 billion yuan ($200 million) was spent to incinerate or bury delivery packing waste in 2018. The figure is expected to more than triple by 2025, assuming no improvement in recycling rates.
The State Post Bureau, which supervises the express delivery market, has drawn up tougher regulations targeting green delivery services last month. The bureau required 70 percent of packaging materials used by express firms to be renewable by the end of this year, up from 44 percent at present.
Some improvements have been made by the express delivery industry in reducing packaging waste, according to an industry report released earlier this year.
Ninety six percent of delivery services have adopted digital waybills, and a thinner packaging tape with a width of 45 millimeters – compared with 60 mm in the past – has been widely used in the industry. And some leading e-commerce businesses such as JD and Suning have rolled out their own recycling boxes.
The report added, however, the usage of these boxes has so far been limited in scale.
“E-commerce businesses and express firms should make more effort to reduce single-use delivery packaging to solve the waste problem,” said Lu Weizhen from Break Free From Plastic China.
The report calls for more encouragement and mandatory policies to spur market players to reduce packaging and increase the rates of recycling and reuse, as well as improved regulations and the building of a green certification system in the industry.
Article from China Daily.
Dear Coca Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelez International, Unilever,
On World Clean Up Day 2019, over 70,000 people went out into their communities to clean up plastic pollution and collect data on the brands they found. After analysing the results of 484 brand audit events in over 50 countries, you have been found to be the top 5 global plastic polluters, most of you for the second year.
Once again, the efforts of thousands of people around the world have shown that your products are those found in the environment in the greatest quantities, in most countries. Despite the urgent need for action, the focus from your companies is currently on false solutions such as shifting to other disposable materials, claiming your products are 100% recyclable, or by
embracing chemical recycling, none of which will solve the crisis we currently face.
The signatories to this letter are calling on you to change how you design and deliver your products, away from your reliance on single-use plastic. We believe that as the top global plastic polluters, it is your responsibility to lead the way in redesigning packaging to be refillable and reusable. It is time to take responsibility for the harm caused by the single-use plastic you are
pushing on society. We ask that you urgently address plastic pollution by working to change your products along the
– Reveal: Publicly declare how many units of single-use plastic you produce per year per country.
– Reduce: commit to dramatically reducing the number of single-use plastic products and packaging you make and use with a clearly defined, publicly available action plan working towards measurable results.
– Reinvent: radically rethink how you deliver products to your customers so that you no longer rely on single-use plastic, with a focus on reusable and refillable packaging systems.
The signatories to this letter wish to stress that any commitments that do not meet the above criteria will not be adequate to address the plastic pollution crisis. Only a wholesale shift away from single-use packaging will change your status as the world’s top plastic polluters.
7th Generation Advisors
Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance
Association 3 Hérissons
Bio Vision Africa (BIVA)
Break Free from Plastic
Bundesverband Meeresmüll e.V./German Marine Litter Association
bye bye plastic bags
Californians Against Waste
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Coalfield Justice
Center for Environmental Solutions
Center for International Environmental Law
Centre for Environmental Justice
Centre for Zero Waste & Development
CESTA Friends of the Earth El Salvador
CIRCULAR THINKING PROJECT
Citizen consumer and civic Action Group
Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO)
European Environmental Bureau
GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives)
Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation
Green Africa Youth Organization
Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement
Inland Ocean Coalition
Judith Enck, Founder, Beyond Plastics
Korea Federation for Environmental Movement(KFEM/FoE Korea)
Marine Conservation Society
War on Waste Negros Oriental
Mind the Store campaign
Mother Earth Foundation
New Zealand Product Stewardship Council
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center
Pipeline Safety Coalition
Plastic Free Seas
Plastic Pollution Coalition
Plastic Soup Foundation
Polish Zero Waste Association
Post-Landfill Action Network
Rio Grande International Study Center
San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper
Society for Earth
Student Public Interest Research Groups
Taiwan Zero Waste Alliance
Texas Campaign for the Environment
The 5 Gyres Institute
The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE)
The Green Earth
The Last Plastic Straw
The Story of Stuff Project
Turtle Island Restoration Network
VšĮ Žiedinė ekonomika
War on Waste Negros Oriental
Wen (Women’s Environmental Network)
Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan
Youzhu Lin from FON
Zelena akcija / FoE Croatia
ZERO – Association for the Sustainability of the Earth System
Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine
Zero Waste Europe
Zero Waste France
Zero waste Tunisia
Zero Waste Villages
-See Branded Vol ii: Identifying the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters for background, methodology, data analysis and locations of brand audits https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/globalbrandauditreport2019/
-See Branded Vol i: In Search of the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters for the 2018 results https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/globalbrandauditreport2018/
-See report by Greenpeace for more information https://www.greenpeace.org/international/press-release/24580/greenpeace-plastics-false-solutioreport-exposes-how-multinationals-are-pretending-to-solve-the-plastic-crisis/
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 14, 2019
Contact: Claire Arkin, email@example.com, 510-883-9490 ext: 111
Berkeley, CA — Tomorrow, on the industry-backed, “America Recycles Day,” people across the country will be participating in clean-up activities, and pledging to recycle more. At the same time, Break Free From Plastic leaders will be getting arrested on Fire Drill Friday to call attention to environmental injustice, climate change, failing recycling systems, and waste dumping scandals, while demanding that corporations reduce the production of plastics, instead of focusing on cleaning it up after the fact.
Keep America Beautiful, the non-profit organization behind America Recycles Day, is funded by some of the biggest corporate polluters (Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsi) according to the recent global brand audit report, and has a history of sabotaging plastic reduction legislation while blaming consumers for the plastic pollution crisis– taking the heat off the corporations who are creating it in the first place.
Instead of taking meaningful steps to phase out single-use plastic from their business models, corporate polluters uplift recycling as the primary solution to plastic waste. But while Americans are diligently recycling and attending clean-ups, the plastic industry is planning to quadruple plastic production by 2050. Meanwhile, only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled.
Corporations’ over-reliance on recycling is actually undermining it. According to a group of mission-based recyclers including Ecology Center, Eco-cycle, Eureka Recycling, and Recycle Ann Arbor, “Our jobs are becoming harder and harder as major consumer brands flood the market with more and different types of single-use plastics and other disposable packaging, insisting that these items should be included in our recycling programs while doing little to nothing to actually make their products recyclable and recycled.” Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle only use 9%, 3%, and 2% recycled content in their products, respectively.
“Just like the fossil fuel industry, corporate polluters have been using recycling to justify ever-increasing production of single-use packaging, while taxpayers and cities are left to foot the bill. Lower income communities and communities of color, who are the hardest hit and the least responsible, bear the brunt of a model that has brought us to the brink of the waste and climate crisis,” said Denise Patel, US & Canada Program Director of GAIA.
Meanwhile, China’s effective ban on foreign post-consumer recycling imports has exposed the major flaws in our global recycling system, which has been shown to pollute communities in other parts of the world, particularly Asia.
“Plastic waste shipments supposedly for recycling are trashing poor villages and communities wherever they end up. Companies need to come clean on this one — they cannot continue to fool the public that has become acutely aware that the solution to the crisis lies in producing and using less plastic to begin with,” said Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of Break Free from Plastic.
Fortunately, communities and businesses across the world are working with local governments towards zero waste, including alternative delivery systems like refill and reuse, organizing for improved product redesign and implementing bans on a wide range of single-use disposables.
According to Patel, “We must think beyond recycling. A Green New Deal for Zero Waste will create millions of jobs that focus on reduction and reuse before recycling, bring innovative design and delivery systems for products built with cities, businesses, and communities coming together, and promote health and well-being instead of waste and injustice.”