4 Big Food Retailers Score Lowest on Plastic Pollution Scorecard

As You Sow has released its Corporate Plastic Pollution Scorecard 2021 analyzing the actions and inactions of 50 of the largest U.S. consumer-facing companies to reduce plastic pollution.

The nonprofit organization promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building and innovative legal strategies. One of its main initiatives deals with plastic pollution. 

About 11 million metric tons of plastic are dumped each year in the ocean — an amount that’s projected to nearly triple by 2040 without urgent, large-scale action, according to research by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SystemIQ, a London-based sustainability consultancy.

“Companies are now more fully aware of the plastic pollution crisis they’ve helped create, but knowledge is not enough,” said Kelly McBee, waste program coordinator at Berkeley, Calif.-based As You Sow and the author of the report. “Swift and decisive action from packaging producers is necessary to ensure that what they produce is not only recyclable, but actually recycled at scale.”

Among the six lowest-ranking companies on As You Sow’s scorecard are four food retailers. The lowest ranked companies by revenue size, including their As You Sow grades, are:

  • Amazon, D-, $386 billion
  • Costco, F, $167 billion
  • Walgreens, D-, $140 billion
  • The Kroger Co., D, $122 billion

These marks are in contrast to messages that the retailers have released during the year. For example, according to its recent sustainability report, Amazon’s Whole Foods Market stores switched to smaller plastic produce bags and replaced all plastic rotisserie chicken containers with bags that use approximately 70% less plastic. Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods are also rolling out a curbside recyclable solution to keep grocery items frozen or chilled during delivery. This new packaging is produced with recycled paper and eliminates the need for plastic liners or bubble bag insulation.

Additionally, Kroger simplified the recycling of flexible plastic packaging in April by expanding its Simple Truth Recycling Program to include all of the grocer’s private label brands, including Private Selection, Kroger Brand, Comforts, Luvsome and Abound. Then there’s Kroger’s ESG report, which touted the use of reusable solutions in its supply network. 

As You Sow blames the high number of poor and failing grades on a lack of basic goal setting, strategy, and action to shift from disposable to reusable packaging to effectively address the plastic pollution crisis.

Meanwhile, among the six highest-ranking companies are two food retailers: Walmart Inc. and Target Corp., both earing a C+. The two companies recently united to test new retail bag solutions to combat plastic waste. The pilots are intended to help refine winning solutions from the global Beyond the Bag innovation challenge to advance sustainable alternatives to the single-use plastic bag.

As You Sow released its highest grade, a B, to Atlanta-based The Coca-Cola Co. Key contributions to Coca-Cola’s grade are the high degree of transparency for its packaging use, a strong commitment to recycling all containers that it puts on the market, and its support of producer responsibility initiatives. Coca-Cola is the only company in the report to disclose the number of units of plastic packaging it produces. The CPG company also reported 60% progress toward its 2030 goal to recycle one bottle or can for each one it produces.

While As You Sow found significant progress in some areas, such as a sharp increase in commitments to reduce use of virgin plastic for packaging, its report echoes previous findings that no companies are acting with sufficiently robust policies.

“Plastic packaging pollution is increasingly becoming a risk for consumer-facing businesses — regulatory risk, financial risk, supply chain risk­ and, most importantly, brand risk,” said Bruno Monteyne, senior analyst at Bernstein Autonomous, a global equity research firm based in London. 

According to a survey of 661 consumers conducted last year by Madison, Wis.-based Pinpoint Software, more than 57% of consumers said that plastic and packaging waste is the most important grocery store sustainability initiative.

“We know some high-scoring companies have failed to achieve commitments in the past, so we will closely monitor them to see if they walk the talk and meet their goals,” said McBee. “It is critically important for investors, policy makers and the public to hold these companies accountable for taking bold and sustained action.”

As You Sow noticed less leadership in the area of support for recycling, with just 5% of the $17 billion needed to expand and upgrade U.S. recycling infrastructure having been secured to date. The scorecard results indicate that companies have a long way to go to transition from single-use plastics, dramatically increase recycling yields and deliver a truly circular plastics economy.

In developing the scorecard, As You Sow sought input from industry leaders, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The Recycling Partnership and U.S. Plastics Pact, to craft 44 metrics to gauge corporate action. 

Seattle-based Amazon is No. 2 on Progressive Grocer’s 2021 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America, while its Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods subsidiary is No. 26 on PG’s list. Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco is No. 4, Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreens is No. 5, Cincinnati-based Kroger is No. 3, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart is No. 1 and Minneapolis-based Target Corp. is No. 6 on The PG 100.