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Plastic Pledges Or Empty Promises? Big Brands Make Bold Commitments At 2020 Plastic Summit

Business behemoths -- from Woolworths to McDonald's and Qantas -- made bold promises about their commitments to reduce plastic waste at the national plastic summit in Canberra last week.

But whether their pledges are actually achievable and measurable is the big question because if brands can't outline set plans or remain transparent with consumers they risk being seen as a marketing ploy full of empty promises.

While companies were unveiling their anti-plastic pledges, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared federal government departments will have to consider environmental sustainability and use of recycled materials as part the coalition's war on waste.

Image: Getty

A staggering eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the nation's ocean every year.

On top of that, 1.4 million tonnes of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres are exported annually. And as much as consumers have a responsibility to reduce their plastic footprint, global companies must set the tone.

McDonald's

In a bid to boost its sustainability credentials, McDonald's revealed a further move away from single-use plastics. On top of pledging to ban plastic straws, the fast-good giant has promised to can plastic cutlery by the end of the year.

That's a big promise given the franchise has close to 1,000 stores across Australia and would be removing more than 500 million plastic straws from circulation annually.

McDonald's had already started phasing out plastic straws and now single-use plastic cutlery will follow suit. Image: Getty

The transition to fibre-based cutlery also means Macca’s will stop about 585 tonnes of plastic from going to landfill every year, the franchise claims.

It's a big ask. However, there is evidence to suggest the restaurant chain is delivering measurable promises. For instance, McDonald's has already removed plastic lids from McFlurry cups and its salad bowls were replaced with a more environmentally-friendly alternative, meaning 85 percent of Macca’s packaging is now fibre-based.

Australia Post

The postal giant is launching a new range of recyclable plastic satchels, in a decision that will see it move away from using virgin plastic to a 100 percent sustainable alternative.

The roll out started late last year and is tipped to finish by 2021.

In order to remain transparent, Australia Post has given the new packaging labels, which indicate whether they are recyclable, meaning consumers will know exactly what materials they're buying.

"There is no difference in the cost to customers," external communications adviser Brett Simon told 10 daily.

When asked why this is considered a realistic plan, Simon said it's just part of a much broader focus on its sustainability goals and a transition that is already underway.

Unilever

As one of the world's largest consumer goods giants, Unilever -- which is responsible for more than 400 brands world-wide, has an enormous role to play in the environmental movement.

It has pledged to half the amount of virgin plastic -- which would be more than 100,000 tonnes -- by switching to a recyclable alternative.

Unilever owns more than 400 brands world-wide has an enormous role to play in the environmental movement. Image: Getty

“As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of the linear 'take-make-dispose' model. And we want to change it," a Unilever spokesperson told 10 daily.

"One way we can demonstrate our action is by communicating clear and measurable steps towards meeting our goals."

How they plan to do that sounds a little vague though. But they do have a solid plan in place around helping consumers understand what is recyclable and how to recycle effectively.

Nestle

Nestle is looking to save plastic from making its way to landfill by collecting 750 tonnes of the nasty stuff from more than 100,00 Aussie homes -- as part of a trial.

Speaking to 10 daily, Nestle's communications boss Margaret Stuart said this involves 'soft plastic', so things like plastic shopping bags.

Stuart is refreshingly transparent about the whole thing. While she understands offering a recyclable options is great the key is to educate consumers on how to recycle -- which is the tricky part.

"Like a number of companies we want all our packaging to be recyclable but  how do we make sure it is recycled? It's not enough to be recyclable," she claimed.

"We must build more robust recycling programs, not just products."

Woolworths

Supermarket giant Woolworths has set the bar high in terms of its anti-plastic ambitions. Firstly it wants to transition its 600ml spring water bottles to a recycled plastic while stripping its shelves of plastic straws which would eliminate 134 million from circulation.

Woolworths has set the bar high in terms of its anti-plastic ambitions. Image: AAP

It has also partnered with the Loop's recycling scheme.

Other plans include re-purposing more than 900 tonnes of soft plastics into useful items like outdoor furniture and benches.

Woolworths told 10 daily it is "working hard" to ensure it achieves its goals, but whether it meets them is an entirely different story.

Other Significant Pledges

Coles will donate $430,000 to sustainability organisation Red Group to extend the recycling work they do in the supermarket chain’s stores. It's also committing $20,000 to trial infrastructure products made from recycled plastics, replacing the use of conventional options such as timber.

Qantas wants to remove 100 million single-use plastic items such as cups and meal boxes by the end of the year.

The Prime Minister outlines plans at the 2020 Plastic Summit in Canberra. Image: AAP

Kmart is aiming to phase out 10 own-branded single-use products next year, while half of the polyester and nylon used in its branded clothing and bedding will apparently be produced using recycled material by January 2025.

And it has made a huge call when pledging to ensure all of the Kmart Group's plastic products will be recyclable or compostable by December 2030.

What Now?

The Australian Council of Recycling said the summit was an opportunity for real action because a summit that "puts substance before stylistics" is what we need to deal with the plastics problem, the council's chief executive Peter Shmigel said.

It is understood there will be  meeting in two weeks with state and territory leaders to finalise a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

McDonald's, Qantas, Target, Kmart and Pepsi were also contacted for comment about their pledges but didn't respond.