It’s time to cancel single-use plastic

If you’ve been alive for the past year, it’s likely you’ve heard about “cancel culture.” While there’s no official definition, cancellation seems to occur when a practice or behavior moves from being acceptable to being unacceptable to a new status: ‘cancelled.’ As in, you’re out.

And – oh by the way – there’s no path for your redemption. So get used to the four walls of your house. That is, if your landlord doesn’t cancel your lease too.

Say or write the wrong thing? Buh-bye to your media platform. Use your privilege to criticize someone less privileged? Get ready to be doxxed into oblivion. Abuse someone you already out-rank at your place of employment? So long and don’t bother asking for a reference.

In these examples, I’m not going to define “wrong,” “privilege,” or “abuse,” because those definitions are fluid and, in some ways, beside the point. What is the point?

Most often, it’s money.

Money Matters

The most powerful cancellations occur when cold hard cash and institutional reputations are threatened. A top-level NASCAR driver lost his multi-million dollar job earlier this year for the casual use of a racial slur. While his immediate, heartfelt contrition might have set things right only a year ago, his team’s corporate sponsors, including McDonald’s (MCD), made it clear to the team that it was ‘him or us,’ and “bam,” the driver was gone.

Yes, this trend is early, but seems to be gaining momentum.

So while we debate the fairness of cancellation, may I suggest that we start thinking pro-actively about it. As in, what unequivocally deserves to be cancelled? My vote goes to single-use plastic. To get a quick handle on why, consider that:

And then there’s the kicker: plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases throughout their entire life cycle.

Recycling Myth

Plastics industry representatives are already on the record as saying things like ”We believe uncollected plastics do not belong in the environment.” But the industry believes the answer is not less plastic, but more recycling. This position has been used as a stay-out-of-jail-free stance for 40 years.

But only 9% of plastic waste in the U.S. was recycled in 2015, according to the latest federal estimate. That figure is likely lower in the rest of the world. And plastic recycling is almost always just a single additional cycle, turning some single-use plastic into park benches and deck lumber. But not slowing in any way the upstream production, use, consumption and disposal of more plastic items.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers being what they are (opportunistic, among other traits), if there was a legal exposure to exploit, it would have happened by now.

But “cancellation” of the producers of single-use plastic won’t require an adverse legal judgment. It will only require plastic consumers, investors and any other stakeholders to decide, en masse, they won’t do business with or otherwise validate these companies.

Or in legal terms, the “cancellation” of single-use plastics won’t require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; it’ll only require a preponderance of the evidence. Of which there is already plenty (see the bullet point about human immune cells above).

ESG Power

So what would cancellation look like? Consider first that over $12 trillion of assets in the U.S. are managed according to ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) strategies. Next consider the successes socially-responsible investing has had in the past, helping to effect real, lasting change in anti-tobacco and in anti-apartheid initiatives. And consider that those two successes occurred without the movement-building power of the Internet.

Right now, ESG investment initiatives relating to single-use plastic are just that: initiatives; encouraging companies that produce or utilize plastic to show progress in reducing use and dependence. But it’s a short leap from there to a real call for action: boycotting companies and denying investment.

In other words, it won’t be necessary to wait for legal judgments, as was the case with tobacco. ESG pressure will force real and expensive change on the industry. Otherwise, investors will themselves be complicit in a scheme to literally poison the Earth.

And moving away from single-use plastic doesn’t have to be all-stick and no-carrot. There are a number of venture-backed companies and universities developing and even selling products that will decompose quickly without damaging the environment. Some of these products will require changes in our behavior and in our waste handling processes. Those changes will cost money. But no amount of money will clean our oceans and un-poison the fish who live there.


If the public wants you gone, whether you’re Harvey Weinstein or polystyrene, you’ll be gone quickly and be on the hook for the damage you’ve done. According to the research firm the Freedonia Group, by 2025, the plastic packaging market will be worth roughly $365 billion. The petroleum-based plastics industry has a lot to lose.
Thanks to the speed-of-light communications tools of the 21st Century, it no longer requires legislation or a legal judgment to bring a disreputable practice to a screeching halt. It only requires that you be “cancelled” in the public square. The plastics industry and anyone who invests in it should keep that in mind.

Photo Credit: GPA Photo Archive via Flickr Creative Commons