Global Sustainability Agenda #23: Unveiling the Plastic Industry’s Dilemma: A Closer Look at Recycling, Regulation, and Sustainability

Global Sustainability Agenda #23

Global Sustainability Reality

Colder winters in Iowa actually prove that global warming is a reality (Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Scientists confirm record highs for three most important heat-trapping gases

Global concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide climbed to unseen levels in 2023, underlining climate crisis (The Guardian)

Can climate change make rare northeast earthquakes more common? Experts weigh in (NBC New York)

Majority of recent CO2 emissions linked to just 57 producers (Reuters)

Climate change more about what’s wasted than what’s used (ABC News)

To Slow Global Warming, Scientists Test Solar Geoengineering (The NY Times)

The winter that wasn’t: Climate change is transforming Maine’s coldest season (Press Herald)

Ambitious projects are trying to engineer the atmosphere (The NY Times)

Global Sustainability Business Impact

New carbon technology projects could be key to ‘Big Oil’ emissions cuts (Fox Business)

Big oil is racing to scale up carbon capture to slash emissions, but the challenges are immense (CNBC)

SEC Pauses Climate Disclosure Rules Amidst Legal Challenges (ESG Today)

Biden-Harris Administration Announces $25 Million from Investing in America Agenda to Protect Wetlands in Arizona (DOI.GOV)

DOE Releases First Ever Federal Blueprint to Decarbonize America’s Buildings Sector (ENERGY.GOV)

Prioritizing Climate Tech Investments In The Clean Energy Economy (Forbes)

US to Invest US$20bn in Industry Decarbonisation (Sustainability Mag)

Green energy providers face transmission cable shortage (Financial Times)

There’s an Explosion of Plastic Waste. Big Companies Say ‘We’ve Got This.’ (The NY Times)


Plastic, once hailed as a modern marvel for its versatility and convenience, ubiquitous in numerous products from containers to electronics, has now become an emblem of environmental crisis and a major contributor to climate-warming pollution, accounting for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Almost exclusively derived from oil, natural gas, or coal, the production process involves significant carbon emissions from extracting, transporting, refining, and manufacturing these raw materials.

Over the past few decades, carbon pollution from plastic production has doubled due to increased global production and a shift to regions reliant on coal for energy.

Currently, an estimated 9 million to 14 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year. Plastic waste has been found in all areas of the globe, from the deepest seas to the most remote mountains. It causes major harm to wildlife and ecosystems, disrupts the livelihood of millions of people, and poses significant risks to human health and the world economy.


With the world churning out an astonishing 430 million metric tons of plastic annually and the risk that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans, the industry finds itself at a crossroads. It must grapple with the daunting challenge of managing plastic waste while facing mounting pressure for accountability and sustainability.

In recent years, revelations from various sources, including investigative reports and industry insiders, have shed light on the inner workings of the plastic industry. These disclosures have uncovered a complex web of factors contributing to the ongoing plastic pollution crisis, including inadequate recycling efforts, skepticism from industry executives, and the urgent need for regulatory intervention.

One of the most striking revelations comes from a report by the Center for Climate Integrity and environmentalist groups. The report unearthed decades-old statements from oil and plastics executives expressing skepticism about the viability of recycling. Shockingly blunt remarks from industry insiders dating back to the 1990s reveal a pattern of setting unrealistic recycling goals while harboring doubts about their achievability.

For instance, an Exxon chemical executive confessed in 1994, stating, “We are committed to the activities, but not committed to the results,” highlighting a disconcerting gap between rhetoric and action within the industry. Similarly, a representative from DuPont acknowledged in 1992 that recycling goals were established despite the knowledge that they were unlikely to be met.

Michael Copley, a correspondent covering climate issues for NPR, underscores the significance of these revelations, emphasizing how they underscore a longstanding pattern of the plastics industry using recycling as a strategic tool to evade regulation and continue unabated plastic production.

Moreover, while the industry now touts advanced recycling technologies as panaceas for plastic waste, skepticism abounds regarding their efficacy and economic feasibility. Advanced recycling, also known as chemical recycling, involves converting plastics back into liquids and gases for reuse. However, critics question whether these technologies can truly address the underlying issues of plastic pollution or if they merely serve as greenwashing tactics.

Despite pledges from plastic manufacturers to achieve 100% recyclability by 2040, doubts persist about the feasibility of such ambitious targets. The industry’s track record of unfulfilled promises raises concerns about its commitment to genuine sustainability versus mere public relations maneuvers.

In response to mounting scrutiny, the plastic industry finds itself at a pivotal moment, with stakeholders increasingly advocating for comprehensive solutions beyond recycling. While recycling remains an essential component of waste management, experts emphasize the need for broader systemic changes, including reducing plastic production, eliminating non-recyclable plastics, and implementing robust regulatory frameworks.

The case of Procter & Gamble and Nestlé: a new generation of plants will help them meet environmental goals

Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble have made ambitious pledges to tackle plastic waste, with targets set for 2025 and 2030. Nestlé aims to exclusively use recyclable plastic by 2025, while L’Oréal commits to all packaging being refillable, reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the same year. Procter & Gamble plans to halve its use of virgin plastic resin by 2030.

To achieve these goals, the companies are championing a new generation of recycling plants, termed “advanced” or “chemical” recycling. These facilities promise to recycle a wider range of products than traditional methods by breaking down plastic into basic molecular components for reuse. However, the effectiveness of advanced recycling is currently in question, as these plants face challenges in delivering on their promises.

PureCycle Technologies, a prominent player in Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble’s commitments, operates a plant in Ohio intended to process discarded polypropylene. Despite setbacks such as technical issues and shareholder lawsuits, PureCycle remains confident in its technology. However, doubts linger, with some investors accusing the company of false statements.

While the plastics industry hails chemical recycling as a solution to the global waste problem, environmental groups remain skeptical. They argue that promoting recycling allows companies to justify increased plastic production despite the technology’s readiness. Instead, they advocate for reducing plastic production altogether.

Despite the challenges, companies like Nestlé express optimism about the technology’s potential. They continue to invest in initiatives to address plastic waste, albeit with ongoing scrutiny and skepticism from environmental advocates.

The Path Forward

Ultimately, addressing the plastic pollution crisis requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, and consumers. It’s imperative to move beyond superficial solutions and embrace a holistic approach that prioritizes environmental sustainability and long-term viability over short-term profits.

As the plastic industry navigates this turbulent terrain, it faces a fundamental choice: to cling to outdated practices and rhetoric or to embrace innovation, accountability, and genuine sustainability. The path forward may be challenging, but the stakes have never been higher. Only by confronting the harsh realities of the plastic pollution crisis can we hope to forge a more sustainable future for generations to come.

Beatriz Canamary

Beatriz Canamary is a consultant in Sustainable and Resilient Business, Doctor and Professor in Business, Civil Engineer, specialized in Mergers and Acquisitions from the Harvard Business School, and mom of triplets. Today she is dedicated to the effective application of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Multinationals.

She is an ESG enthusiast and makes it possible to carry out sustainable projects, such as energy transition and net-zero carbon emissions. She has +15 years of expertise in large infrastructure projects.

Member of the World Economic Forum, Academy of International Business and Academy of Economics and Finance.