Inside Big Plastic’s Faltering $1.5 Billion Global Cleanup Effort

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Inside Big Plastic’s Faltering $1.5 Billion Global Cleanup EffortAlmost four years since the Alliance to End Plastic Waste launched, its on-the-ground recycling is negligible compared to the new plastic produced by its core members, petrochemical companies.

By Stephanie BakerMatthew Campbell and Patpicha Tanakasempipat20 December 2022 at 09:12 GMT+8

In May 2021, a container ship called the X-Press Pearl caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka and then sank into the Indian Ocean. The vessel was carrying billions of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles, which began washing up along Sri Lanka’s western shore. The United Nations called it the largest plastic spill in history.

The size and shape of lentils, nurdles are the raw material used to make many plastic products, from sandwich wrappers to water bottles. After the spill, scientists worried that sea creatures would mistake the pellets for food, and Sri Lanka’s government imposed a fishing ban that damaged livelihoods up and down the coast. Meanwhile, it began an ambitious effort to clean up almost 150 miles of shoreline.

Information boards in Uswetakeiyawa notify visitors of risks from the X-Press Pearl spill. Photographer: Jonathan Wijayaratne/Bloomberg

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That’s when an organization called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), which is funded by companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Dow Chemical Co., and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., got involved. Soon after the ship sank, AEPW announced that it was partnering with Sri Lanka to rehabilitate its beaches by donating eight machines called “Sweepy Hydros.” According to the NGO’s website, the machines, which resemble oversized lawn mowers fitted with a mesh to filter out plastic, “significantly sped up the clean-up process,” with each Sweepy Hydro collecting up to 250,000 nurdles a day.

A little over a year later, the Sweepy machines are mostly collecting dust in a shipping container. On a wide beach north of Colombo, teams of women work six days a week to clean up the nurdles by hand, inching their way up the coastline. Using shovels, they dig down about 6 feet and then sift the sand they remove by rocking large rectangular sieves to capture the plastic discs, which they dump into buckets.

According to the women, the Sweepy Hydros don’t work very well, cleaning only to a depth of a few inches and getting clogged up when the sand is wet. They also require fuel and spare parts—commodities that are in short supply in Sri Lanka, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis. “It’s more efficient to do it by hand,” said Chitra Damayanthi, 59, who was one of about 20 women digging and sifting on an overcast day in mid-October. Nonetheless, she said, “it will take years and years.”

The Sri Lanka cleanup is just one of about 50 projects AEPW says it’s supporting around the world. When it was formed in January 2019, the Alliance announced plans to invest up to $1.5 billion over five years to “advance solutions to eliminate plastic waste in the environment.”

But an investigation by Bloomberg Green has found that the organization, based in Singapore, is dominated by petrochemical companies that have a stake in keeping the world hooked on plastic, and that its efforts are scarcely making an impact. This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with AEPW’s work, as well as internal documents that have never been reported.

Almost four years after its creation, the group says it’s “diverted” 34,000 tons of plastic from the environment. That’s about 0.2% of its original target.

For one thing, its public statements and documents don’t advertise that AEPW grew out of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry lobby group representing plastic producers that helped fund its establishment. While the Alliance’s 77 members include consumer-goods companies such as PepsiCo Inc., it’s petrochemical producers — firms counting on revenue from plastic to offset the automotive sector’s shift from gasoline — that have defined AEPW’s agenda.

Sri Lankan workers use large sieves to clean the polluted beach by hand. Photographer: Jonathan Wijayaratne/Bloomberg

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According to people familiar with the group’s operations, who were not authorized to speak publicly, Exxon and its fellow oil giants have played an outsize role in ensuring AEPW focuses on “downstream” solutions, like collection and recycling, rather than the one thing many environmentalists believe would truly ameliorate the global plastic waste crisis: promoting alternatives to the material. That’s consistent with the agenda of the ACC, which tried to steer recent UN talks on a global plastics treaty away from caps on production, as proposed by some governments. The ACC called such caps a “misguided approach” that would “hinder progress towards a more sustainable, lower-carbon future.”

Like many initiatives to reduce plastic waste, the Alliance has barely made a dent in the problem. Almost four years after its creation, it says it’s “diverted” 34,000 tons of plastic from the environment. That’s about 0.2% of its original target of removing 15 million tons over five years. Jacob Duer, AEPW’s chief executive officer, said in an interview that the goal was “too ambitious” and had been abandoned.

In addition to impacts from the Covid pandemic, which made it difficult to travel to project sites, “we did not necessarily understand the challenges that we were faced with in terms of trying to address this problem on the ground,” said Duer. He earned almost $1.2 million last year, according to the AEPW’s 2021 US tax disclosure.

And not all of those 34,000 tons have actually been recycled. Much plastic waste is too flimsy or contaminated for recycling, and AEPW concedes that some of what it diverts is being incinerated or sent to landfills. Still, Duer said that “the impact of our projects is starting to emerge, and we see a very positive trajectory going into the future.” He denied that petrochemical companies have wielded special influence within the group.

“The big oil and chemical companies are basically saying, ‘Don’t go near production, just focus on the downstream recycling — reuse, recover — because we’re not to blame.’”

As for the beach clean-up machines in Sri Lanka, Duer said the organization was unaware they weren’t being used, and that after AEPW delivered them, the Sri Lankan government “took full responsibility and accountability” for their operation.

Based on AEPW’s own numbers and the estimated plastic output of oil and chemical giants, it’s clear the organization’s corporate members are selling exponentially more plastic than they’re removing from the environment.

“It’s actually quite sophisticated greenwashing,” said John Willis, the director of research at think tank Planet Tracker, which has criticized AEPW. “The big oil and chemical companies are basically saying, ‘Don’t go near production, just focus on the downstream recycling — reuse, recover — because we’re not to blame.’”

The Sweepy Hydro machines stored in a shipping container. Photographer: Jonathan Wijayaratne/Bloomberg

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For this story, Bloomberg Green selected four projects and found that all are falling short of the claims it makes to the public. In Thailand, AEPW says it’s supporting a community leader who’s never heard of the organization. In the Philippines, it has funded a program that incentivizes consumers to recycle plastic by giving them plastic back in return. And in Ghana, it’s backing a project that’s doing very little actual recycling. Meanwhile, the organization spent $3 million on advertising and promotion in 2021, with professionally produced videos highlighting its work around the world, compared with about $26 million on grants and support to partners.

The Alliance says most of its projects are small-scale pilots designed to test solutions and that it’s now working on bigger initiatives, such as a $29 million pledge in May to improve plastic waste management in Indonesia.

AEPW is built on the premise that expanding recycling infrastructure can eventually contain the plastic waste crisis. Its efforts are focused on developing countries, many of which lack the waste management infrastructure necessary to cope with rising plastic use. But studies have repeatedly shown that recycling won’t be able to get ahead of the amount of plastic the world is throwing out every day. Made from fossil fuels and chemicals, plastic is much more difficult and expensive to reprocess than paper or metal. Melting it down can generate harmful fumes, while chemical additives and colorants complicate reuse. And plastic typically degrades when it’s recycled, which means it can only be processed so many times.

Global plastic waste has more than doubled over the past two decades to 353 million metric tons annually, a number that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development expects to almost triple by 2060. Currently, only around 9% is recycled; the OECD says that by 2060, the figure might be just 17%. An estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year.

“The plastics industry knows better than anyone that plastics are fundamentally not recyclable,” said Judith Enck, president of advocacy group Beyond Plastics and a former official with the US Environmental Protection Agency. “But it wants you to think you can just toss everything in your recycling bin.”

Lentil-sized plastic nurdles and other items of plastic trash that workers collected on the beach in Sri Lanka. Photographer: Jonathan Wijayaratne/Bloomberg

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In June 2018, top executives from some of the world’s largest petrochemical companies gathered at the luxury Broadmoor resort, in Colorado Springs, for the American Chemistry Council’s annual meeting. A sense of urgency hung over the usual rounds of breakout sessions, golf and dinners.

ACC members knew they were facing a mounting backlash against plastic pollution, and staff gave a series of presentations highlighting growing public awareness. They pointed to the David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, broadcast internationally in late 2017, which showed young seabirds ingesting plastic and a turtle entangled in it, prompting a global outcry.

The group had debated options for getting ahead of the problem at previous meetings, but couldn’t agree on a course of action, said people familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak about them publicly. In 2018, the ACC’s plastics committee debated whether to start some kind of new initiative, demurring until an Exxon representative warned the group couldn’t “just dick around forever” and had to do something, according to one attendee who declined to be named because the discussions were private. In parallel, the leaders of a handful of the biggest petrochemical companies were talking on the sidelines of the meeting about the need to set up a separate organization with the support of the chemical industry. “We rapidly agreed that action was needed fast,” said Graham van’t Hoff, Shell’s executive vice president for chemicals until 2019.

When the full ACC board met, it greenlit an idea for a global corporate alliance dedicated to reducing plastic waste, telling staff they should try to also enlist consumer-product and waste management companies.

“‘It can’t be just us — we’re big but we’re not that big,’” Steve Russell, the former vice president of plastics at the ACC, recalls executives saying. “The direction that they gave was more money, broader resources — do the harder thing and focus where waste is the worst,” in developing countries with poor recycling infrastructure.

One of the first consumer goods companies to join was Procter & Gamble Co., the maker of everyday products such as Tide detergent and Gillette razors. Its chemicals division was already a member of the ACC and had been working with the trade body on improving the recycling of polypropylene, which is used for detergent packaging. But recruiting other consumer companies to AEPW was an uphill battle, said three people familiar with the discussions. Some of the biggest names, like Unilever Plc and Nestle SA, stayed away, preferring to work on their own or through other partnerships. Unilever and Nestle declined to comment.

In its early days, the ACC assisted in running AEPW and helped set it up as a US non-profit. The new organization’s headquarters were placed in Singapore, on the theory that Asian countries were most affected by plastic waste and needed to be the initial focus of clean-up efforts. The companies backing the initiative chose Duer, a former UN official from Denmark, to lead it. The ACC managed back-office tasks like invoicing member dues, and, according to AEPW’s 2019 tax return, covered $1.3 million in start-up costs. (AEPW says it has paid that money back to the ACC.)

“The ACC provided secretariat services in the initial period,” an AEPW spokeswoman said, denying the ACC “set up” the organization.

The ACC hasn’t tried to hide its involvement in launching the Alliance, said Joshua Baca, the trade body’s vice president of plastics. “The ACC has the infrastructure, the network and shared members who were having the discussions to do this,” Baca said. “It was always the intention for ACC to step back.”

Out of AEPW’s 27 founding members, 19 were also members of the ACC. Most of the rest were plastics producers. In January 2019, AEPW held a live-streamed launch event in London that featured a parade of petrochemical executives who promised bold progress. Members such as Chevron Phillips Chemical and BASF SE promoted the creation of the Alliance on their social media channels. Four months later, it scored a coup by enlisting PepsiCo — to this day, one of the few large consumer players that’s signed up.

While AEPW has engaged in extensive PR efforts, little about how it functions is public. For example, it doesn’t disclose the composition of its executive committee or fee structure on its website or its annual progress reports. But both are skewed toward petrochemical companies — that is, plastic producers. This is particularly true on the executive committee, which requires extra payments to join. Of its 15 current members, nine are petrochemical companies, including Exxon, Chevron Phillips Chemical, BASF, and Shell Chemical, and two are plastic packaging producers.

Plastic makers predominate in AEPW 11 of the 15 companies on the executive committee produce petrochemicals — key components in plastics — or plastic packagingSource: Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Bloomberg

They were also responsible for a disproportionate share of the organization’s funding. In AEPW’s fee schedule, which categorizes members by industry and size, petrochemical companies are in the highest tier, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg Green, as well as interviews with people with knowledge of the organization. Under this formula, Exxon, which recorded $285.6 billion in 2021 revenue, would pay about $12.5 million annually for its executive-committee seat. PepsiCo would pay $7.5 million.

In addition to being among the biggest contributors, Exxon, by one estimate the world’s top producer of single-use plastic waste, sought to influence AEPW’s agenda more than any other member, according to people familiar with the organization. It weighed in regularly on everything from press releases to policy briefings, a level of engagement that far outstripped other companies. Exxon employees read every relevant document, showed up to every meeting, and often dominated internal working groups, the people said. On one occasion, according to one of the people, an Exxon representative attempted to ensure the goals for a working group wouldn’t include discussion of reducing overall plastic use.

A cargo ship carrying a furnace for a petrochemical plant being built in Texas by Exxon Mobil Corp. and Saudi Basic Industries Corp., Dec. 2020. Eddie Seal/Bloomberg

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The plant under construction in Gregory, Texas, in July 2021. Eddie Seal/Bloomberg

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Duer disputed this characterization of AEPW’s operations. Even though petrochemical companies pay higher fees, “we are truly a cross-value-chain organization,” he said. “No single company is getting any preference over another company, nor is any single sector having any stronger influence.”

“We are playing our part to launch real solutions to address plastic waste and improve recycling rates,” Exxon said in a statement. “This includes staying actively engaged with organizations like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.”

Member fees are meant to fund AEPW’s commitment to invest up to $1.5 billion in tackling plastic waste. But there’s a catch. Only about 40% of executive committee member dues go directly into the Alliance’s “solution accelerator fund,” which finances independent recycling and waste management projects. About 60% reflects what the group calls “member-directed commitments” — projects undertaken by corporate members themselves. To count toward the Alliance’s investment goal, these initiatives aren’t supposed to be part of a company’s pre-existing business plan and must have a measurable impact on plastic collection, processing or recycling. For instance, a marketing campaign wouldn’t count.

But people familiar with the program concede that it’s sometimes difficult to determine if member-directed commitments are truly additive, rather than projects that might have happened anyway. For example, the French waste management company Suez SA, an AEPW member, in 2019 announced plans for a plastic recycling plant in Thailand in partnership with another member, Bangkok-based SCG Chemicals. The Alliance’s 2020 progress report touted the Suez plant as one of its flagship member-directed commitments, but it’s a for-profit venture, part of a sprawling global waste management business. (The facility is now owned by another AEPW member, Veolia Environnement SA, which acquired large parts of Suez’s water and waste management assets outside France this year).

In response to questions for this story, AEPW said it has $1.2 billion in member pledges so far, of which $170 million is for independent plastic recycling and waste management projects. The bulk of the total — $800 million — represents member-directed commitments, not all of which has been spent. AEPW confirmed commercial initiatives that generate a profit for members can be counted as member-directed projects, but declined to disclose those investments.

A spokeswoman for Exxon said that an “advanced recycling” facility it recently opened near Houston is included as a member-directed commitment. Many environmentalists say advanced recycling — an energy-intensive chemical process — is not a real solution because it generates greenhouse gases and air pollution.

Plastic bags are spread out to dry at Wat Chak Luk Ya Community Enterprise recycling center in Rayong, Thailand, on Dec. 14, 2022. Video: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

Bloomberg Green’s visits to three more AEPW projects — in addition to the beach cleanup in Sri Lanka — suggest that they’re having little, if any, impact on the volumes of plastic waste overwhelming the world.

In Thailand, AEPW says it’s supporting a recycling initiative called Rayong Less-Waste, located in an eastern province that’s home to several large petrochemical facilities. On its website, AEPW recounts how it’s aiding a community leader named Napapat Au-charoen, “affectionately referred to as ‘Apple,’” who it describes as leading a local recycling drive and teaching residents how to separate trash. It says it helped develop a guidebook for Napapat to educate people on sorting plastic. The guidebook, AEPW says, has been distributed to 20 municipalities.

Napapat Au-Charoen, founder of Wat Chak Luk Ya Community Enterprise recycling center. Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

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But Napapat says she has never heard of AEPW and she knows nothing about a guidebook. One day in late October, she could be found at her community recycling center, lecturing dozens of people about waste disposal. Mountains of plastic bags were piled up in front of the building, located down a small alleyway opposite an empty plot of land. Nearby, six women were sorting heaps of plastic waste, cutting off labels and dividing bottles by color.

Napapat, 53, said she launched her recycling project in 2019 by herself, supported by some cash from the Thai government’s environment fund. “We’re proud we started this all on our own,” she said. “No one makes any money from this.” In the early days, volunteers huddled over piles of plastic bottles and bags in what was a muddy open space, with no roof over their heads. In December 2020, PTTGC, the petrochemical arm of Thailand’s state-controlled oil and gas company, offered to help. It constructed a building and gave Napapat’s group a plastic-crushing machine. Napapat said that’s the only other support of financial value that she’s received.

Machinery inside the community recycling center in Rayong, Thailand. Video: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

When told that Napapat was unaware of the Alliance, Duer said he would look into it. “That’s very disturbing if that’s the case,” he said. “We would not have put information on our webpage that is not correct.” Later AEPW said it had “engaged” with Napapat through its local partner, the Federation of Thai Industries, and didn’t dispute that it hadn’t provided her with funding.

According to Somchit Nilthanom, a project manager at a local industry group called PPP Plastics, AEPW is funding some recycling efforts in Rayong through municipal grants, but Napapat’s isn’t among them. The final recipients of the grants are determined by municipal officials, who decided that other projects had a more pressing need for funds. Yet Napapat remains in AEPW’s publicity materials and on its Instagram account — helping promote an organization she has no relationship with. There is a recycling guidebook, but Napapat has never used it. Municipal officials say the Alliance gave them 40 copies, which are stacked somewhere in their offices. “It’s like 30 to 40 pages,” one official said, asking not to be named because she’s not authorized to speak publicly. “Nobody’s going to read that.”

All the plastic recycled at Wat Chak Luk Ya Community Enterprise is carefully cleaned, dried and sorted. Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

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By contrast AEPW’s partner in the Philippines is working closely with the organization. Erica Reyes-Cardoso, the chief operating officer of The Plastic Flamingo — Plaf for short — said AEPW assists it “with everything,” holding regular calls to provide advice. In particular, said Reyes-Cardoso, “they sponsor all of the videos we’ve produced” — short films that show staff sorting waste alongside images of plastic pollution clogging beaches and rivers.

Plaf was founded in 2018 by a French couple, Francois and Charlotte Lesage, after they were shocked by the plastic waste they saw during their Southeast Asian honeymoon. Plaf, which operates out of a small factory in the southern suburbs of Manila, isn’t a charity; it describes itself as a “for-profit social enterprise,” aiming to make money from waste. AEPW is its largest funder, having provided $400,000.

Plaf collects plastic from drop-off points — more than 200 around Manila — where people can leave their waste. Many of the collection sites are in retail stores that have partnered with the organization. Bloomberg Green visited five of them in mid-November. At three locations, customers dropping off plastic waste were being offered a curious incentive: more plastic in exchange. In Manila’s vast Mall of Asia, salespeople for the cosmetics chains Yves Rocher and L’Occitane, which have Plaf collection bins onsite, explained that they provide samples of beauty products to patrons who drop off unwanted plastic. These include tiny bottles of perfume or lotion that carry no indication of being made from recycled material; they also give out plastic sample sachets, which are extremely difficult to recycle economically. At another store, customers are given miniature plastic bottles of hand sanitizer or a cosmetic face mask — also in a plastic sachet.

Reyes-Cardoso said that Plaf can’t control what retail partners choose to provide as incentives; nor, she said, does the organization track how much new plastic is being sent out to the world from its collection sites.

When asked if he was aware of the plastic-for-plastic practice, Duer seemed surprised. “I’m sure the collection point does not hand out plastic afterwards,” he said. Assured that a reporter for Bloomberg Green had witnessed it, Duer replied, “Obviously I wouldn’t know that.” Later, AEPW thanked Bloomberg Green for alerting them to the situation and said they had told Plaf it needed to stop. Reyes-Cardoso said she had notified partners not to use plastic products as incentives.

The plastic-swapping aside, Plaf is nowhere near the diversion target of 2,000 tons a year that AEPW lists on its website. Currently it’s processing about 500 tons of plastic annually, according to Reyes-Cardoso, though she’s hopeful that upgrades to shredders will allow it to speed operations.

Elsewhere, too, AEPW’s results remain modest compared with the scale of the plastic-waste problem. In Ghana, it says it’s funding a group called the ASASE Foundation to create a circular recycling business, Cash It!, to help “vulnerable communities earn new income by closing the loop.” AEPW pledged $1.8 million to the project, which is also receiving funding from the European Union. According to AEPW’s website, plastic waste is collected and sold to Cash It recycling centers in the capital, Accra, to be ground and sold for reuse in products or building materials.

Cash It center along the coast of Sakumono near Accra. Photographer: Ekow Dontoh/Bloomberg

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On recent visits, one collection center in the town of Sakumono, on Accra’s outskirts, was virtually empty. A Cash It recycling site in a neighboring district of the city was filled with hundreds of bags of rubbish, but there were no workers outside loading it for processing.

Dana Mosora, a former Dow executive who co-founded Cash It, said in an interview that AEPW’s support included funding for equipment, as well as sending a waste management expert to train local staff. Sites like the one in Sakumono don’t store material for long, she said, while the recycling center Bloomberg Green visited in Accra has bought more plastic than it can process for now, creating a pile-up. “We had to build the plant and ramp up capacity,” she said. “We’re getting there now.”

The small-scale nature of these AEPW-backed initiatives is hard to grasp from the professionally produced videos posted on its website and YouTube channel. While the videos only get a few thousand views at most, member companies and the ACC regularly point to AEPW as evidence that they’re taking action on plastic. For instance, when research was published in 2020 showing the growth of plastic waste was outpacing efforts to mitigate the problem, the ACC issued a press release highlighting how “plastic makers and many others” created the AEPW to address litter in the environment. The Alliance regularly appears on the websites of member companies promoting sustainability efforts, including Exxon, Procter & Gamble, Chevron Phillips and BASF. At the World Ocean Summit in July, a Dow executive singled out the company’s support of AEPW in improving the collection and recycling of plastic waste in the developing world.

Some critics say the Alliance is more focused on self-promotion than impact. “They’re really making the most of every minute of airtime they can get,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a London-based non-profit that has studied AEPW’s work. “It’s a scattergun approach to have all these projects working at a local level trying to tackle plastic waste. It sounds impressive, but the impact is minimal.”

Take Cash It: Mosora said it has diverted 1,800 tons of waste so far this year and declined to say how much had been recycled. But Accra — just one city in a mid-sized developing country — generates about 300 tons of plastic waste per day, or about 110,000 tons per year.

Duer said the goal of Cash It is to test a new recycling model, then try to replicate it in other communities. “It is small,” Duer said. “We need a much larger ecosystem of actors to solve the problem.”

—With reporting by Ekow Dontoh and Dasha Afanasieva