United Church Funds (UCF) is stepping up its efforts to address the environmental repercussions of single-use plastics. With a leading shareholder advocacy group, As You Sow, UCF has co-filed shareholder resolutions with ExxonMobil and Westlake, urging both corporations to address their role in the production of single-use plastics. These resolutions are part of a broader effort to engage the leading petrochemical producers in reducing single-use plastic production.

Matthew Illian, UCF’s Director of Responsible Investing, said: “UCF understands the urgency of collective action in addressing plastic pollution, and our partnership with As You Sow is rooted in the organization’s decades-long advocacy and shareholder engagement in preparing to reduce plastic waste.”

Recognizing that only 20 to 30% of plastic bottles were getting recycled – the rest ending up in landfills – As You Sow launched its efforts 30 years ago by pushing soft drink manufacturers, including Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, to increase their recycling efforts. Since then, they have broadened their efforts to the consumer goods sector, pressing Target and Walmart to reduce the amount of virgin plastic use in packaging.

While much of the responsibility for plastic pollution has traditionally been attributed to consumer goods companies, the root cause is an artificially low price on plastic resin. Illian explained: “This is driven by a market that fails to price the full cost of plastic waste on our ecosystems and personal health, while at the same time, we continue to subsidize oil and gas production. But there are critical signs, like the proposed Global Plastics Treaty, suggesting that societal pressure is growing to address these market failures.”

The most recent focus of corporate engagement has been on petrochemical companies, initiated by the Mindaroo Foundation’s 2021 report, Plastic Waste Makers Index,. In that report, ExxonMobil ranked first as the largest global producer of virgin polymer bound for single-use plastics, at 11.5 million metric tons (2021), and Westlake ranked 36th. Despite increasing awareness of the need to reduce plastic use among consumers, not much has been done with regard to petrochemical companies.

“Mounting studies and data made it clear that plastic is becoming a global crisis, and recycling alone is not enough,” said Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President of As You Sow. “We’ve shifted our shareholder engagement focus and messages from recycling to reducing the amount of plastic produced and ensuring it is recyclable.”

Illian added, “The Pew Charitable Trusts published a report in 2020 suggesting that we can reduce plastic pollution by 80% by 2040. This report discussed the risks to producers of virgin plastics as well as the opportunities for companies who are ready to unlock value from a more circular economy. As a result, UCF, in collaboration with As You Sow, has begun to engage with ExxonMobil and Westlake in dialogue.”

ExxonMobil has so far pushed back, claiming that the real issue isn’t plastics themselves but rather the mishandling of plastic waste. They highlight their efforts to tackle the problem by investing in and promoting certified circular plastics, a process that involves using advanced recycling methods and ensuring that the plastic’s lifecycle is tracked from start to finish. However, these methods have concerns about their safety and efficiency, which the shareholder engagement proposal seeks to address.

At Westlake, although last year’s shareholder resolution garnered only a 9.5% vote, this was not representative of independent shareholders, because the majority (73.7%) of stocks was held by insiders related to its founder, Ting Tsung Chao. Despite this challenge, UCF remains undeterred and has filed another shareholder resolution at Westlake this year.

Drawing inspiration from the United Church of Christ’s General Synod resolution of 2023, UCF will continue to advocate for the overall reduction of plastic use, specifically single-plastic use. Acknowledging plastic’s indispensable role in certain industries, such as health care, the Synod’s Free from Plastic Pollution resolution advocates for approaches that promote alternatives and reduces overall plastic usage without pushing for its complete elimination.

“We understand that this is a highly complex and nuanced issue,” Illian noted. “But we can’t let that deter us, as shareholder activists, from doing everything we can to reduce the toxic effects of plastic on our world.”