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Nestlé's Plastic Initiative Called 'Greenwashing' by Greenpeace

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Freedom Island Beach in the Philippines. Greenpeace

The environmental impact of the world's plastic consumption is profound. Plastic trash and the tiny pieces that chip off it can be found everywhere—in oceans, marine life, land and our bodies, too.

To help solve this planetary crisis, Nestlé pledged Tuesday to make all its plastic packaging 100 percent recyclable or reusable by 2025. The Swiss food giant envisions a world where "none of its packaging, including plastics, ends up in landfill or as litter," it said.


"Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Tackling it requires a collective approach," Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said in a statement.

Nestlé joins a number of major international corporations, such as rival Unilever, making similar commitments.

However, environmentalists say the move is not enough. As the world's largest food and beverage company, Nestlé's wide expanse of products—which includes bottled water, chocolate candy bars and instant coffee pods—"helped to create" this plastic pollution problem in the first place, according to a fiery response from Greenpeace.

In a statement provided to EcoWatch, Greenpeace criticized Nestlé's statement for not including clear targets or a timeline to reduce and eventually phase out single-use plastics.

"Nestlé's statement on plastic packaging includes more of the same greenwashing baby steps to tackle a crisis it helped to create," Greenpeace oceans campaigner Graham Forbes said. "It will not actually move the needle toward the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way, and sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world. The statement is full of ambiguous or nonexistent targets, relies on 'ambitions' to do better, and puts the responsibility on consumers rather than the company to clean up its own plastic pollution."

During a 2017 beach clean-up on Freedom Island in the Philippines, the third worst polluter of the world's oceans, Greenpeace volunteers and coalition partners found more discarded Nestlé products than any other brand.

Greenpeace's Forbes said Nestlé has the power and resources to phase out single-use plastics and move towards zero-waste in its packaging.

"A company of Nestlé's size should be setting a strong standard to actually move away from throwaway plastics," Forbes said. "It should know by now that recycling efforts are not going to clean up our oceans, waterways and communities. On the contrary, the company's business as usual will only accelerate plastic pollution."

Nestlé's new initiative focuses on three core areas: eliminate non-recyclable plastics; encourage the use of plastics that allow better recycling rates; and eliminate or change complex combinations of packaging materials.

"We are working on changing the colors used for our plastic packaging. Lighter colors are easier to recycle," Nestlé sustainability expert Duncan Pollard told reporters, as quoted by CNBC.

Pollard said the recycling of single-use plastics depends on there being recycling infrastructure in place, particularly in Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Nestlé was in the center of controversy last week after the state of Michigan granted its bottled water subsidiary a permit to increase groundwater withdrawal from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute from its White Pine Springs well.

The approval came despite near universal opposition from residents—81,862 comments against the permit versus 75 in favor—who cited Nestlé's nominal $200-a-year fee to pump water from its wells. The fee will not change with the new permit.

Nestlé's White Pine Springs well also happens to lie approximately 120 miles from the lead-poisoned city of Flint. Bottled water companies have drawn outrage from many communities for privatizing their public water supply in the face of Flint's years-long drinking water crisis, where some residents have been billed hundreds of dollars for water they cannot drink.

On top of that, the Michigan government declared on Friday that Flint's drinking water was now safe and announced it would stop providing free bottled water to the city's residents.

Detroit journalist and Flint water crisis writer Anna Clark remarked that it was "not lost" on Flint locals that the state's decision came just days after Nestlé "won the right to pump more Michigan water for free."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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