• Our media analysis found that new regulations across the world marked a turning point in the media debate on plastic pollution while recycling came under fire.
  • We also found that reuse initiatives tend to generate more positive headlines, while transparency and data verification is more important than ever.
  • In addition, the media debate around plastic pollution has expanded to encompass not only visible, tangible plastics but also microplastics and PFAS.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

With Plastic Free July around the corner, it’s crucial for PR and communications professionals to have a firm grasp on the debate around plastic pollution – a debate that has seen significant shifts over the past year.

To see how the conversation has evolved, we analysed the 806 English-language articles published in top-tier outlets in the last 12 months. Here are our main findings:

1. New regulations provided a new narrative

In contrast to previous years, where the emphasis was placed primarily on consumer behaviour or industry initiatives, Regulation has emerged as a pivotal theme in the most recent plastic pollution debate.

One regulatory shift that made many headlines was the ban on single-use plastic items in England, set to commence in October 2023. This legislation extends to single-use plastic plates, cutlery, bowls, trays, as well as select polystyrene cups and food containers. However, the ban exempts items used as packaging for “shelf-ready pre-packaged food items”.

Announcing the ban made UK Environment Secretary Therese Coffey the most influential spokesperson in the debate:

Nonetheless, the move was criticised by environmentalists as a PR stunt – for instance, Nina Schrank from Greenpeace UK, argued that banning items one by one might just produce nice headlines for the government. She advocated for comprehensive reuse targets for supermarkets, an end to waste export, and a swift introduction of the long-promised bottle return scheme.

The Regulation topic went beyond England: Canada declared it will ban single-use plastics such as grocery bags and straws by the end of the year, the United Arab Emirates announced a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags to take effect next year, and a new EU draft directive proposed that all packaging should be reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Such developments mark a turning point in the media debate on plastic pollution. They signify a shift from deliberation to action, altering the discourse from raising awareness to implementing and assessing the outcomes of such decisive measures.

This shift also provides a new narrative for PR and communications professionals to exploit. The emphasis on collective responsibility and systemic changes can be used to highlight the contributions of their organisations towards tackling plastic pollution, shifting away from the focus on individual actions. Similarly, the increased interest in sustainable alternatives provides an opportunity to promote green innovations, partnerships, and initiatives. However, authenticity and transparency will be crucial in these communications, as audiences are becoming more aware and critical of greenwashing, as we found in our recent analysis.

2. Corporate recycling initiatives came under fire

In our previous work on the plastic debate, we found that much of the corporate comms efforts relating to plastic waste focused on recycling. However, our current analysis revealed that corporate recycling initiatives have come under increasing scrutiny.

The media criticism of corporate recycling initiatives was often centred around the argument that they fail to adequately address the core issue of plastic pollution, which is the overuse of virgin plastic materials. A recent highly publicised study pointed out that while corporations, particularly powerful Fortune 500 companies, were making public commitments to reduce plastic pollution, their strategies predominantly focused on recycling existing plastic, not on reducing their initial use of newly manufactured plastics.

This approach has been met with scepticism and criticism in the media, as it was seen as a “partial” solution that doesn’t fully tackle the root cause of the problem. Moreover, the practice of “lightweighting” – reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging by companies like Coca-Cola and Walmart – was also scrutinised. Many media outlets pointed out that the resulting savings often lead companies to invest in new plastic products, thus leading to an overall increase in plastic production, and not a net reduction.

This criticism mainly focused on the Food & Drink and Retail industries, making them the most central sectors in the plastic debate after NGOs:

The increasing scrutiny of corporate recycling initiatives represents a pivotal shift for PR and communications professionals. Traditional narratives that largely focus on the company’s recycling efforts may no longer be sufficient or compelling in today’s sustainability-focused landscape. The public, regulators, and environmental advocacy groups are demanding deeper commitments to reducing plastic production and promoting a circular economy, rather than merely managing waste.

For PR and comms professionals, this means crafting a more holistic and comprehensive sustainability narrative. It’s not just about highlighting recycling initiatives; it’s also about underscoring efforts to reduce and reuse, along with aligning the business with sustainable production and consumption models.

3. Transparency and data verification are more important than ever

Amazon emerged as the most influential company in terms of media impact as environmental group Oceana found that plastic waste from its packages went up by 18% last year, even though Amazon said it has reduced its use of single-use plastic across its network.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

The findings of Oceana‘s report, combined with Amazon‘s statement on its plastic use, underscored a key challenge for PR professionals: how to effectively position their organisations as responsible actors amidst contradictory data and heightened public scrutiny around environmental impact.

This situation highlighted the importance of transparency and data verification. Amazon‘s decision to disclose its plastic use figures was a positive step, but the omission of third-party seller data could lead to accusations of incomplete disclosure or even greenwashing. PR professionals must work to ensure that the full story is shared and that the data provided is as comprehensive as possible.

Similarly, Oceana scrutinised Coca-Cola‘s sustainability commitments for falling behind on efforts to boost its use of reusable packaging and for producing billions more single-use plastic bottles. Last year, Coca-Cola pledged to increase the share of its products sold in reusable packaging to at least 25% by 2030. But the global beverage company’s latest sustainability report, published in April, shows the share of products sold in reusable packaging fell in 2022, calling into question its ability to cut down on the use of newly manufactured, or “virgin,” plastic.

Coca-Cola‘s apparent backtrack on its reusable packaging efforts has not only drawn criticism from environmental groups like Oceana but also put its credibility and reputation at risk. PR and comms professionals must navigate such challenges by being upfront about the obstacles they face and outlining their plans to overcome these hurdles. The disparity between Coca-Cola‘s sustainability pledge and its current progress could have been better managed with clear, proactive communication about any changes in reporting metrics or other factors impacting its targets.

4. Reuse initiatives tend to generate more positive headlines

A critical question that arised in our media sample was: what will replace plastic? Journalists noted that while substitutes like paper may seem feasible, they, too, generate waste. Therefore, the spotlight has turned towards the development of a reuse economy, which replaces single-use items with reusable alternatives.

We found that reuse initiatives typically garnered more positive media attention because they reflected proactive and concrete steps to tackle plastic pollution, aligning with a growing public sentiment for sustainable practices. Unlike recycling efforts, which have been criticised for not addressing the source of the problem, reuse programs demonstrated a commitment to reducing the production of new plastic materials altogether. They represented a systemic change in how goods are consumed and waste is managed, offering a more comprehensive and sustainable solution to the plastic pollution problem.

Positive media coverage of these initiatives often highlighted the innovative and forward-thinking nature of the companies involved, thereby strengthening their environmental reputation and fostering goodwill among consumers and stakeholders. Stories about reuse initiatives tended to be more engaging and novel, attracting higher readership and shares. These stories often involved a radical rethinking of conventional business practices and consumer habits, making them inherently more interesting and newsworthy.

In our media sample, McDonald’s attracted positive attention by testing reusable containers at its French outlets. Similarly, Unilever was featured in a positive light for introducing reuse and refill packaging for its Dove products.

Meanwhile, Aldi launched a “green” supermarket in the UK, offering zero-waste and reusable food packaging options, and PepsiCo released a global packaging goal intended to double its reusable packaging use by 2030.

5. Microplastics and PFAS emerged as new issues

The media debate around plastic pollution has expanded to encompass not only visible, tangible plastics but also microplastics and Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), largely invisible threats that have garnered significant attention.

Microplastics, minute particles less than 5mm in diameter, arise from the degradation of larger plastic items or are intentionally produced for use in products like cosmetics. Their ubiquitous presence in the environment, from the deepest sea trenches to remote mountain ranges, and their detection in food, drink, and even human bodies, have triggered alarm in media coverage.

Similarly, PFAS, a group of man-made chemicals often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistent nature, are increasingly implicated in plastic pollution debates, as we found in our recent analysis. They are commonly used in food packaging for their water- and grease-resistant properties, such as in fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.

Companies in the food and drink sector are often mentioned as part of the problem due to the extensive use of single-use plastic packaging which may contain PFAS. For example, recent research from Consumer Reports found that PFAS were still cropping up in food packaging at major fast food chains, things like McDonald’s bags for French fries and Burger King‘s bags for cookies. And since then, at least three lawsuits have been filed against these two burger chains over their use of these chemicals.

The broadening scope of the discussion necessitates a more comprehensive approach to sustainability communication. Simply adhering to current regulations may not be enough to protect a company’s reputation. PR and comms professionals should guide their organisations towards leadership positions in these matters, potentially by pioneering safer alternatives, enhancing supply chain transparency, or advocating for more stringent industry standards.

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