Photograph of diver surrounded by plastic, flipping the camera off
Photograph by Cristian Palmer

If the corporate world wants to play a meaningful role in solving our plastic pollution crisis it should stop blaming consumers and start accepting responsibility for its packaging.

Discussion of the environment has become embedded in our culture as public awareness over issues such as climate change and plastic pollution has grown.

Advertisers aren’t shy about tapping into this concern for their own benefit but the “Do your part, recycle!” campaigning from government, corporates and NGOs is not helping. Even worse, it often frames consumers as the villains in the story.

According to last year’s National Waste Report, 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2016-17; that’s 103kg for each person. Most of the plastic was only used once, and only 12 per cent was recycled.

Coca-Cola claims that by the end of 2019, 70 per cent of its plastic bottles in Australia will be made entirely from recycled plastic. In August, the company released a video in Australia thanking people for recycling.

However, research has shown the same piece of plastic can only be recycled two or three times before its quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used. This will limit initiatives like Coca-Cola’s plastic bottle scheme.

The beverage company’s campaign follows its European campaign launched in June with the tagline “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle”.

Absolut Vodka, this year, launched a new limited edition bottle which it said was made of 41 per cent recycled glass – like all of its bottles – accompanied by a guide to circular living.

The company told customers: “Now’s your time to shine on stage – rocking the recycling lifestyle as a true #RecyclingHero!”.

On the face of it, such campaigns might seem virtuous, especially following China’s 2018 policy limiting the import of low-quality mixed recyclables.

But in fact, they continue a long history of framing consumers as the main waste culprits.

The practice began in the US in the 1950s when Keep America Beautiful was formed. The non-profit consortium included Coca-Cola and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris, among others.

Its campaigns, such as the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, tapped into a shared cultural guilt for polluting the environment and, in this case, mistreating Indigenous people.

Such tactics have been mirrored by Keep Australia Beautiful campaigns. Most recently, in the UK, City to Sea launched a video featuring a talking anus asking the public to “be a good a**hole” by putting their wet wipes in the bin instead of flushing them.

But guilt is not a good motivator. A 2001 study found individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

Manufacturers of consumer products obviously play a major role in the growing plastic problem.

But it is clear from their advertisements that several companies aren’t taking responsibility for the huge amount of packaging they produce,  transferring the onus instead to the consumer. 

The Australian Packaging Covenant, an agreement between government and industry, says responsibility for packaging should be shared by companies throughout the supply chain.

However, researchers have noted that a permissive legal framework has allowed plastic pollution to rise despite the obvious harm it causes to communities and marine life. 

For example, in 2015, New South Wales residents started receiving a 10 cent-refund at depots and over-the-counter collection points for their used plastic containers.

What began as a successful initiative, turned sour when the companies leading the Exchange for Change program, namely Coca-Cola Amatil, Asahi, CUB, Coopers and Lion, decided to pass on the costs of the scheme to consumers.

Image credit: The Guardian

Alternative solutions have been successfully tested but without moving to a larger scale they won’t be able to make much difference.

In 2014, the City of Sydney partnered with Envirobank during the trial of Reverse Vending Machines that rewarded recyclers. Every time someone deposited  recyclable material into a vending machine they received a reward, such as food vouchers or a small donation to ‘Clean-Up Australia’.

The City of Wyndham in Melbourne’s outer west conducted a similar trial in 2016.

This year, the City of Perth is trialling a scheme in Bull Creek, giving customers a feel for the technology before the state government rolls out its recycling initiative, next year.

When you look at the bigger picture, progress is still slow

As Recycled Plastics Australia general manager Stephen Scherer told the ABC this year: “…the federal government has been absent from the conversation about waste, while Australians are operating in a culture where we don’t do what we’re not forced to do.”

Plastic waste is on the radar for Australian governments. State and federal environment ministers last year set a target that all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier.

But critics say that rather than setting targets, the federal government should mandate the use of recycled plastic in packaging.

Companies such as Coca-Cola are embracing the concept of sustainability to some extent. Better still, other brands have sought to fix recycling systems themselves.

In February, Unilever “paid” people in Buenos Aires, Argentina for their household recyclables with discount coupons redeemable against its products at selected retailers.

In 2012, Volkswagen South Africa turned postal boxes into recycling deposits through its Bluemotion Label campaign with sticky, pre-paid, postal labels encouraging the public to post their unwanted magazines.

In the UK, Burger King last month announced it was scrapping plastic toys from kids’ meals and invited the public to bring in old plastic toys from any restaurant meal. The plastic will be remade into “interactive play opportunities” for families at their restaurants.

In Australia, superannuation fund Australian Ethical ran its latest campaign on 100 per cent recyclable billboard skins.

Citizen-consumers do have a role to play in waste reduction, by recycling or demanding that companies find alternatives to single-use plastics. In Hong Kong, for example, the government’s inertia prompted local student charity, Greeners Action, to give people yellow and blue bags for their rubbish.

The Vote on Garbage campaign gave people the choice between blue bags promoting waste reduction enforcement and yellow bags promoting the expansion of landfills and more incinerators. Votes for the two types of bags were counted. An issue that had been postponed for six years, received a response in six months with the approval of a bill to directly address the issue of waste.

But if companies want to respond meaningfully to the plastic crisis and become part of the solution for a desirable future, they must accept ultimate responsibility for their packaging, work towards zero-waste and stop blaming and shaming consumers on their ads.

Sérgio Brodsky the head of strategy and innovation at Nunn Media and the founder and principal at Surge.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email

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  1. Good article. Agree that supply side change from product manufacturers and packaging producers are the key, and the effectiveness of consumer action is actually quite limited. Plastic should be a packaging choice of last resort in a heirarchy that starts with no packaging, durable reusable packaging (preferably not plastic), then if it must be disposable, fully compostable packaging, then finally recycled plastic if it is truly essential for protecting the product during distribution. We need to stop thinking of recycled plastic as a good solution. It’s slightly less bad than virgin plastic, but it’s still a highly problematic waste stream.