The Problem with Plastic Neutral

Have you noticed the surge of companies “upping their commitment to the planet” by announcing they are “going green?” What about companies going “plastic neutral?” We sure have, and are growing weary of the self-congratulations.

plastic spelled out with patterned letters

As an expert in, well, trash, I get lots of articles and pings from friends about companies making changes to be more sustainable. Going “plastic neutral” seems to be a trend at the moment, and one that makes me very squirmy.

So, what does it mean to be plastic neutral? Let’s take a look at Grove Collaborative which recently announced its new neutrality. They claim that, for every ounce of plastic they sell, they collect and recycle an ounce of plastic waste. They don’t actually do the collecting but they cut a check to a vendor that does — in this case, Plastic Bank. They claim to be “turning plastic into gold by revolutionizing the world’s recycling systems to create a regenerative, inclusive, and circular plastic economy.” 

Some of this is awesome, like the fact they are paying people in impoverished communities to do the collecting, and that there is a focus on plastic removal from our suffering oceans. But the plastic Grove is “collecting” to offset their ongoing production was going to be collected anyway. They are merely the ones who stepped in to fund a portion of the redemptions. It’s a very effective marketing message; it’s less effective as an actual waste reduction program. In the meantime, the focus is off their plasticky ways for years and years. Let’s discuss… 

We’ve talked about this a lot, but the aftermarket for recycled plastic is pretty narrow. Currently, there is only demand for plastics #1 and #2, and even then they have to be only clear or white. Plastic Bank’s solution to this is called Social Plastic. They and other providers charge a premium to the likes of Allbirds, Patagonia, and Adidas for their “ocean plastic” and weave it into new goods promoted with altruistic bragging rights that entice eco-sensitive consumers to Apple Pay away. 

But this system merely supports the problem by giving any company with enough marketing mojo the means to “go green” without actually giving up its reliance on plastic. The truly virtuous move would be to stop using plastic altogether and eliminating its constant run-off into our oceans, and the rigamarole of transporting the usable bits to a recycling mill for reuse in another disposable product. 

To their credit, Grove Collaborative claims that they will be plastic-free by 2025, but is a 4-year lead time really the best they can do? Perhaps it is for a company that in 2020 shipped well over 2 million pounds of plastic to its customers. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Grove is sure giving itself a lot of leeway.

sustainable bathroom items - washcloths, loofahs, glass jars of q tips, candle

Our high-fives should be reserved for when they reach their plastic-free goals. Cleverly offsetting their mess is not something to congratulate, especially if it means rewarding them with even more business (aka plastic production) before they actually make the switch. I liken it to when we’re trying to lose weight: we don’t start eating more pasta in anticipation of the pounds dropping off, we need to see results first.

We need to stop accepting single-use plastic. Period. It’s the only solution. There are tons of companies out there working tirelessly to bring to market replacements for all the things we use in our daily lives. You can see some of our favorites here and here. From the bottom of my heart, I ask that you please try them out. New things can make people uncomfortable because they don’t always work/smell/taste the same as old versions. But guess what? Our planet long ago reached, and has now exceeded, its plastic limit.

Uncomfortable doesn’t even begin to describe how we are going to feel when our oceans are irreversibly fouled with plastic waste. We’ve been warned, but it’s not too late to hit the brakes. When we stop accepting single-use plastic we can start the clean-up process. And that’s when we will be high-fiving!

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