Nonprofits and Foundations Work to Curb Plastic Use, Moving Away From a Focus on Recycling
Jasmin Rostamnezhad was one of 168 Austin volunteers who collected more than 6,000 pieces of trash during May and June last year. The volunteers, organized by 5 Gyres, an environmental nonprofit and others had one goal: find how many single-use plastics littered the city’s streets and watersheds.
Rostamnezhad, who was a sustainability manager at Austin Community College at the time, made four visits to areas near her East Austin home. She took photos of litter she found, logged information about the trash online, and placed it in trash bags.
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Jasmin Rostamnezhad was one of 168 Austin volunteers who collected and counted more than 6,000 pieces of trash during May and June last year. The volunteers organized by 5 Gyres, an environmental nonprofit, and other groups were trying to find out how many pieces of plastic littered the city’s streets and watersheds.
Rostamnezhad made four visits to areas near her East Austin home. She took photos of litter that was found and logged information about the trash online. She says she was surprised by what she found.
“If you look closely, there’s so many tiny pieces of plastic,” she said.
The results from the project, dubbed TrashBlitz Austin, confirmed that plastic pollution remains a problem in Austin. Nearly 70 percent of the trash found was food wrappers, bottles, and other plastic items, often single-use products. Austin isn’t unique in dealing with plastic pollution. Plastic waste, which takes up to 200 years to decompose, has accumulated in landfills and oceans across the globe, damaging the environment and posing a threat to human health.
While nonprofits have long fought to reduce plastic pollution — mostly through recycling efforts — new research has prompted charitable organizations to put a greater emphasis on systemic solutions such as encouraging companies and governments to reduce making new plastic, especially if it can be used only once. That shift and a strong emphasis on collaboration has helped nonprofits secure new, stronger commitments from companies to reduce plastic packaging and to successfully push for new laws cutting plastic use.
Grant makers, including Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Volgenau, Point Break, Oak, and Marisla foundations, are playing a part in funding many of these efforts, though a limited amount of environmental dollars are focused on plastic waste. A report by the Environmental Grantmakers Association found that from 2007 to 2018, some 1.6 percent of grants were dedicated to waste reduction, disposal, recycling, and related work.
A 2020 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts and SystemIQ, which advises companies on how to be sustainable, called for a large-scale transformation that drastically shrinks plastic production. Such an approach could reduce plastic pollution in oceans by 80 percent in 20 years, according to the analysis. That dwarfs current projections, which would decrease plastic pollution by only 7 percent.
Conrad MacKerron, a senior vice president at As You Sow, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to protect the environment, says scientific research has made it easier to convince companies to change their practices.
“Once that data came out, then we were able to go to companies and say, ‘Okay, here’s hard data now showing how big the problem is, and why much more aggressive responses are needed,’” MacKerron said.
Less Recycling, More Refillables
Since 2021, As You Sow persuaded at least seven companies, including PepsiCo, Walmart, and Mondelez International, to pledge to reduce plastic use. However, most of those commitments would replace products made with recycled plastic. MacKerron hopes to get more companies to agree to decrease the amount of plastic used overall. Church & Dwight, the maker of products such as Arm & Hammer and Orajel, is one company that has set a goal to reduce the total use of plastic packaging.
Another philanthropic goal has been getting companies to shift away from single-use plastics by using refillable plastic or glass bottles, which can be reused up to 40 times. A report from the nonprofit Oceana, which focuses on protecting oceans, found that increasing the market share of refillable bottles in all coastal countries, including the United States, would reduce marine plastic pollution by one-fifth.
Using this type of data helped As You Sow convince Coca-Cola this year to increase the number of refillable beverage bottles it uses from 16 percent to one in four by 2030. PepsiCo also committed to developing a plan to reduce single-use plastic packaging, in part by expanding use of refillable bottles. These two beverage companies collectively produced more than 5 million metric tons of plastic packaging in 2020, mostly plastic bottles.
Changing Minds, Changing Laws
Many environmental nonprofits also are working to change local, state, and federal policies to crack down on the proliferation of plastics. Starting in 2019, Oceana spearheaded a campaign focused on policies that fight plastic pollution. It is one of hundreds of environmental groups that have supported the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a bill pending in Congress that would reduce or ban certain single-use plastics that aren’t recyclable.
One state-level major victory for Oceana was its advocacy for legislation signed into law this year in California to eliminate plastic packaging by 25 percent and to require all packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2032.
“Without policy, we’re really just taking a cup and trying to take the water out that keeps overflowing from the tub,” said Paulita Bennett-Martin, federal policy manager at Oceana. “But if we turned off the tap, we wouldn’t have the tub overflowing.”
Collaboration Key to Success
TrashBlitz Austin’s plastic survey sparked the creation of the Austin Reuse Coalition. Since launching in July, the coalition has been planning a survey of local restaurants’ use of disposable plastic items. The coalition will use the survey results to help restaurants transition to using more reusable products.
The 5 Gyres Institute, which was instrumental in getting the TrashBlitz and coalition started, also worked on a similar effort in Los Angeles to help residents understand their plastic footprint. Now, the nonprofit plans to give grants of $5,000 to $10,000 each to new coalitions around the country doing similar work.
This collaborative approach has been key for advocates fighting plastic pollution across the globe. Many groups are members of the #breakfreefromplastic movement, which sets priorities and goals for 11,000 organizations and individuals globally. Members have been active in evaluating companies’ plastic footprint and advocating for policies reducing plastic waste.
Philanthropists are working together to fund these groups. The Plastic Solutions Fund brings together grant makers trying to slow and eventually end plastic use. The Oak and Marisla foundations created the fund in 2017, with input from grant makers, environmental groups, research institutes and other nonprofits.
Since then, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Volgenau and Point Break foundations, and others have contributed $64 million to the fund. Of that amount, $34 million has gone to organizations in 17 countries to work on antipollution strategies.
“Our money is amplified by every other donor who’s sitting at the table with us,” said Sara Lowell, marine program director at the Marisla Foundation. “And we’d like to see that grow, to see other pooled funds around other big, huge topics that need to be tackled.”
A focus on changing systems is embedded in the fund’s mission, according to Malti Gadgil, a fund program manager. The fund set an ambitious target to work toward reducing 60 percent of single-use plastics globally by 2040 through its grant making, while also eliminating single-use plastics that are non-recyclable or hard to recycle.
“As the climate crisis continues, I think we should all know by now that business as usual is not going to work,” Gadgil said.
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.