Corona, the Anheuser-Busch InBev beer brand, recently built a "trash wall" on Ipanema Beach made from plastic collected on the famous Brazilian beach in just three days. The stunt followed the "wave of waste" sculpture that the same brand also made, again from plastic rubbish, and a host of similar awareness-raising initiatives by others, including a 50-foot-long plastic-waste sculpture of a dead whale, courtesy of Greenpeace Philippines.
Now you might think brands that are building installations out of plastic waste are doing a brilliant thing to highlight, and therefore reduce, the damage that excessive use of plastic packaging and lack of recycling does to the environment. But if you do, you’d be wrong.
As a creative idea, it’s arguably becoming—much like those "float it up the Thames" or "fire it into space" ideas that went before it—a hackneyed and obvious PR stunt. Far worse, though, it’s a way of distracting consumers from the manufacturers and corporates that are actually responsible for the amount of plastic in the supply chain.
The cerebral Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet brought the issue of plastic waste to the fore in the first place. The unlikely figure of Gregg Wallace and Inside the Factory showed the staggering amount of plastics that manufacturers use, particularly in palletising end products.
Then, when China shut down recycling of foreign plastic waste last year, leaving the world with no scalable means of recycling the mountains of plastic that we discard, the already high stakes got even higher. Hectoring people to put the right waste in the right recycling bins now looks like a futile effort compared with the waste that is produced on an industrial scale.
So what now?
Meaningless stunts are just that: meaningless. But not all brands’ awareness-raising of the plastic issue is ill-judged, misinformed or meaningless.
Look no further than Ikea’s "Last straw" installation at London’s Design Museum last year that coincided with the retailer's ban on single-use straws in its UK and Irish stores. Then, just last month, it launched a unique remote-controlled boat to clear rubbish from waterways.
Or Volvo’s "Unseen ocean" campaign, which was launched alongside a goal to use 25% recycled plastic in every car by 2025, as well as a commitment to ban in-house use of single plastic. It is a laudable move from a brand in one of the most polluting sectors.
Meanwhile, Fairy’s "Ocean plastic bottle", made entirely from post-consumer-recycled plastic, including 10% ocean plastic, and Adidas’ "Ocean plastic shoes" (each pair is made from 11 reused plastic bottles) are both as practical as they are refreshing.
Corona and its agency may aim to pick up some awards from an unimaginative jury and may just manage to raise awareness of the damage that plastic is doing to the environment, of course. But wouldn’t it be better if AB InBev did something more sustainable and substantial in its manufacturing and distribution process and made everyone aware of it before pressuring other manufacturers to do the same?
That’s why I sigh every time I see yet another brand use the plastic crisis as a PR stunt when they—rather than the general public—are mostly responsible for the state we are in. And, like those other stunts that went before it, it is ephemeral rather than a commitment to effect real change.
So, please, Mrs & Mr Manufacturer, no more plastic stunts. Just make the change and ditch plastics from your supply chain for good.
Malcolm Poynton is global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide