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The proliferating plastic trash crisis calls for drastic measures— ‘out’ the worst offenders, demand brand accountability, then bust the myth about biodegradable plastics being the fix.

Plastic keeps making headlines. Recently it was a disturbing report that found 94% of tap water samples from around the U.S. were contaminated with plastic microfibers. Then came the news bottled water could have twice as much plastic as tap water. There was the bombshell that plastic production will increase 40% in the next decade, just as scientists are warning we’re already at a nasty tipping point with plastic pollution set to become a permanent blight on our planet.

Plastics and other debris littering Santa Monica Beach following the “first flush” of seasonal rain. (Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres)

In an effort to combat this plastic tsunami, a partnership of environmental organizations has identified which plastics pose the most danger. Their “BAN List 2.0” reveals the top 20 plastic products littering U.S. waterways. It includes everything from the usual suspects—food wrappers, bags, bottles and straws—down to disposable diapers.

Also identified are the brands responsible for the majority of these single-use items: Starbucks, Coke, McDonalds, Gatorade, Wrigley’s and Poland Springs.

“The idea of calling out these corporations by name isn’t to shame them necessarily,” says the list’s lead author, Marcus Eriksen, science director at the 5 Gyres Institute.

“Some corporations don’t think they’re the source of the problem, or they recognize plastic is a problem and won’t take responsibility for it. But data is data, we’re showing them it’s their brands that are on the ground doing harm,” he says.

Eriksen and his team examined multiple marine litter statistics including those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The Ocean Conservancy. The end result is the first ever national dataset categorizing the United States’ plastic trash by both product type and brand.

At least two of the corporate culprits are already in public show-downs over lackluster attempts to curb plastic waste. Coca-Cola’s pledges to use more recycled content in its annual 128 billion plastic bottle manufacturing operation, along with trying out bottle recovery and reward programs, is seen as green-washing.

A decade ago Starbucks—now serving four billion coffees a year—ambitiously promised 100% recycled paper to-go cups, and to increase reusable cups use by 25%. The company is finally making good on its promise because of intense consumer pressure.

As marine plastic pollution increases exponentially, so does the list of would-be plastic alternatives. Unfortunately, some of the most hyped—compostable and bioplastics—aren’t proving to be the viable solution once hoped.

Eriksen tested 16 supposedly biodegradable and compostable products over a two-year period. Only five of them biodegraded in both land and ocean conditions. Three remained completely intact after 24 months of being buried on land but did decompose in the ocean, while half of the products didn’t degrade at all.

Eriksen’s research shows what biodegradability claims were made about products and what actually happened to the products in real world test sites (Image  courtesy of 5 Gyres)

“All of these were marketed as if they’d break down anywhere,” says Eriksen. But on closer reading, the fine print often specifies industrial composting —meaning a facility with high heat and moisture in anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions—not what’s available in an ocean or roadside setting.

Packaging made from alternatives such as cornstarch or bacteria behaves almost identically to traditional petroleum-based plastics—it sticks around. As Eriksen sums it up, “switching to bioplastics may look like as easy jump but we’ll be in the same mess.”

One of the biggest myths around the exploding build-up of plastic detritus is who’s responsible?

Scientists and the manufacturing industry knew as early as 1969 plastic was ending up in marine ecosystems and staying there. Not long after this discovery came an intentional deflection of responsibility away from industry onto consumers, with anti-litter messaging that squarely blamed people for pollution.

But burgeoning plastic waste being solely the responsibility of taxpayers, municipalities and governments is no longer sustainable. Cities and countries valiantly banning single-use items such as plastic bags and straws is barely making a dent. “It’s not meeting the scale of the problem with a solution of the same magnitude,” says Eriksen.

Plastic manufacturers are fully aware of how dire the situation is—by 2050 it’s estimated the ocean will have more plastic than fish—but they remain hell bent on ramping up production, going so far as recommending countries with the worst plastic waste issues invest in costly incinerating infrastructure. Even though incinerating plastic comes with its own set of environmental nasties.

For marine scientists and environmental organizations—time’s up. They’re demanding the manufacturers switch from a one-way waste system to a circular economic model:

With better product design plus more recycled plastic used in manufacturing, less new plastic is needed. When systematic recycling and recovery are incorporated there’s a drastic reduction of waste escaping into the environment.

BAN List 2.0 goes one step further by making the case that the best alternatives to disposable plastics are products that are 100% reusable. “We’re really trying to nudge industry and policy makers towards the ultimate goal—zero waste,” admits Eriksen.

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