Muntaka Chasant/Wikimedia Commons:
“The entire lifecycle of plastic production, use, and disposal is destroying our communities and environment. ‘[A]t every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals,’ and most people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this toxic lifecycle. Major oil companies profit from sending their raw material to plastics manufacturers, that in turn pollute (generally lower-income) communities in the U.S. and abroad. As plastics continue to overwhelm landfills and oceans—and even invade our food, water, and air—plastics producers are seeking to increase plastic production by an additional 40% over the next decade, and quadruple production by 2050. The impending (and unforeseen) consequences of such a greedy, irresponsible growth model are chilling.”
– Greenpeace, Packaging Away the Planet: U.S. Grocery Retailers and the Plastic Pollution Crisis
On November 20, 2022, I sent a letter to Publix Supermarket, regarding my concerns about their unsustainable practices. Publix is well known for their terrible environmental record. They are a massive plastic polluter, particularly well-known for the enormous number of plastic bags they distribute. Publix has long lobbied to keep a moratorium (which they also lobbied to create) in place that prohibits local governments in Florida from banning plastic bags. They have been completely unresponsive to calls from the public to stop meddling with local governments’ ability to protect the Earth. Publix’s one major response to public concern has been to place numerous greenwashing measures around their stores including signs baselessly claiming environmental awareness, other signs putting the burden of responsibility on the public by stating it’s the consumers job to take action, and, most ironically, at my local Publix, a picture of a Publix-sponsored trash cleanup.
This last greenwashing measure reminded me of something my environmental science teacher once told my class: “We cannot solve the problem of plastic pollution by picking up plastic while corporations continue to pour it into the world. It’s like turning on a faucet and trying to solve the problem by mopping the floor. You can’t make a difference until you turn the faucet off.”
In 2019, Publix received a sharp warning in a report by Greenpeace that investigated the sustainability of 20 major US grocers (Publix was ranked fifth to worst). “Publix failed big time, thanks to its almost singular focus on recycling and lack of transparency,” wrote Greenpeace. “Publix touts a strange assortment of tepid ‘achievements’ for a retailer of its size: a bags-saved counter, removing plastic sleeves from mops, and recycling 4,600 used plastic buckets in its bakeries each week (instead of finding a way to reduce the number in the first place). Publix has utterly failed to take responsibility for its massive role in the plastic pollution crisis, and concerned customers are taking note.” The huge stock Publix puts into recycling to pass themselves off as sustainable makes it appear to Greenpeace that the company is “stuck in the 1990s.”
This year, it was a new Greenpeace report which inspired me to contact Publix and ask for sustainability. In their in-depth report, Circular Claims Fall Flat Again, Greenpeace found that only 1-4% of plastic bags tossed in the recycling bin were accepted into a facility—the rest ended up in landfills or incinerators. The organization claims that plastic recycling is a “myth” perpetuated by polluting corporations (like Publix) who are fully aware that it doesn’t “work.” Contrary to the plastic industry’s spectacular (yet baseless) claims, Greenpeace found no evidence that plastic recycling can or will begin to work in the future. Plastic recycling “is not technically, environmentally, or economically viable.”
At this point, I hadn’t written to Publix in a while, having received no more than greenwashing in response to my previous letters, but now, with this new information to challenge Publix’s near complete reliance on recycling to back up their false claims of sustainability, I was prepared to try again. I wrote a letter, sending it via email on November 20 to several top Publix officials.
It has now been over a month and I have followed up twice with no response. Recently, I explained the situation to an advocacy expert at the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. “What do I do to make a major corporation and polluter like Publix even respond to a letter from a young activist?” I was told this is a common practice by companies: ignore the public’s demands for long enough and maybe they’ll forget about what you’re doing to the planet. The best thing to do, I was told, is request action on a public forum. Corporations want to maintain a good image and it doesn’t look good to publicly ignore or try to place the burden of responsibility on children seeking change.
I have posted my letter to the Kids for Clean Water Facebook page and expect the same greenwashing response as I have received in the past. I urge everyone else who is interested in preserving our planet to contact Publix and demand action in eliminating plastic bags and reducing all other forms of plastic waste. Change comes from the ground up! If enough people speak, Publix will be forced to listen.
Here is the letter I sent to Publix. All links are citations. Feel free to use my sources to back up your own letter!
My name is Brice Claypoole. I am a 14-year-old boy and live in Florida. I love the environment. I find great joy in exploring our local waters and preserves. I also know that a healthy Earth is essential to my future.
Because of this, I am concerned about the use of plastic bags. Plastic production emitted 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, more than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Though it’s still a mystery how long it takes plastic to decompose, we know that plastic bags may take up to 500 or even 1,000 years to break down. During this time, they often do significant harm to the environment and potentially humans. They kill sea turtles, whales, and birds. Or they end up in landfills and incinerators. Due to these major issues, I and many other concerned citizens have asked you to discontinue handing out plastic bags. Our efforts haven’t made any difference, except perhaps to intensify your greenwashing campaigns.
I have sent you several letters addressing this issue. The response has always been the same. Much to-do over your inadequate campaign to get consumers to recycle. Similarly dismissive and off-topic responses have been received by friends of mine who wrote to you about this issue. One letter I sent pointed out the injustice of corporations like Publix putting the burden of responsibility on consumers. You ignored the content of the letter and again explained your pro-recycling campaign, placing the blame right back on the consumers.
In this letter, I have decided to address the recycling campaign you have leaned so heavily on to sidestep the peoples’ demands. A new report by Greenpeace has found that only 4% of plastic bags are accepted into recycling facilities. That means that for every twenty bags we consumers take the time to diligently “recycle,” chances are all twenty end up in landfills or incinerated anyway. The minuscule amount of plastics that are recycled are processed in an inefficient way that produces more emissions than recycled material. Furthermore, Greenpeace found no evidence that plastic recycling can or will begin to “work” in the future. Plastic recycling “is not technically, environmentally, or economically viable.” So campaigns to have consumers toss plastic bags into the recycling bin instead of the trash have little to no effect. All the nice words in green-colored writing on your bags stand in stark contrast to Greenpeace’s findings.
I am sure you will try to point to your store drop-off system as a way of getting around Greenpeace’s groundbreaking analysis. I believe you told me you have recycled 10,300 tons of plastic in one year, a number that does indeed seem impressive at first glance. But further examination reveals this number is simply a tiny fraction of the plastics used each year. 10,000 tons is negligible compared to the 5.6 million tons of plastic incinerated and 27 million tons sent to landfills each year.
Recycling doesn’t work and is not going to start working. Even if recycling did work, it doesn’t offer a solution to the countless bags that get loose and pollute the environment or the greenhouse gases emitted to make your bags. What about the other alternative? The one that we know is best for people and planet and the one you have so carefully danced around: stop handing out plastic bags. Earth is in serious trouble. Our atmosphere is becoming clogged with greenhouse gases, many of which are emitted during plastic production. Our waterways are clogged with trash. There is no more time for excuses. No more time for (and I quote from letters you sent me and your website) “We regret that we have failed to meet your expectations. We would never knowingly disappoint our customers.” No more time for “we provide recycle bins at the front of each of our stores.” No more time for “encouraging use of reusable bags”
As a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times opined, I want Publix to be the place “where shopping is a pleasure” not a dilemma. Could you change from greenwashing to action? Just do the right thing. Stop polluting by giving out plastic bags. Please.
Co-founder, Kids for Clean Water