Break Free From Plastic

Break Free From Plastic is a coalition movement aimed at reducing plastic waste throughout the globe. The coalition started in 2016 and grew to include nearly 1,800 partner organizations globally. 

In the United States, many prominent environmental groups have partnered with Break Free From Plastic including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. The coalition has received grants from The Story of Stuff Project, another environmental group. The coalition and The Story of Stuff Project also share staff. The coalition also includes much smaller associate members such as Straw Free Cincy which is a Facebook group with 63 followers who are working to scale back plastic straw usage in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Hashtag Activists

Most of Break Free From Plastic’s activism takes place online — likely behind a plastic phone or computer — with the #breakfreefromplastic being one of its largest contributions to cleaning the environment. Break Free From Plastic tends to outsource its real-world activism to projects outside of the Break Free From Plastic domain. For example, the campaign directed people to join Greenpeace’s Plastic Free Future campaign but it does not have a campaign of its own. One of Break Free From Plastic’s largest endeavors was actually carried out by the Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group backed by the glassware company Ball, the camping company REI, and other corporate foundations like the Packard Foundation, lobbied for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act which New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall introduced in the Senate in February. 

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act mandates that companies, not municipalities, be placed in charge of collecting the plastic waste they produce and financing their own recycling and composting facilities. Each state would be required to implement a 10 cent bottle deposit to encourage bottle and can recycling. Single-use plastics like bags, utensils, and cups would be outlawed nationwide. No new plastic production facilities would be allowed to open. This legislation received no interest from the Republican Senate majority after it was introduced. 

The one project Break Free From Plastic actually implements in an annual brand audit. Under the audit, activists are asked to collect litter from parks, beaches, and other outdoor areas and take a count of which company produced the littered item. The coalition then uses this unscientific method to extrapolate which companies are producing the litter. The unscientific report is then used to berate companies for using plastic and allowing their products to be littered. 

In 2019, the brand report listed Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi Co as the companies “most responsible for plastic pollution.” In reality, the plastic found in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, is predominantly from Chinese companies and consists of abandoned fishing equipment, not soda bottles. 

Break Free From Plastic has done little to explain what alternatives to plastic should be used. They didn’t say if glass (which requires more carbon emissions than plastic) or aluminum (which is sourced from bauxite strip mines that erode the soil and kill wildlife) would be better for the environment. They also didn’t explain what their alternatives for essential single-use plastics like face masks, latex gloves, or syringes would look like. 

They’ll probably want to figure that out before banning plastic used in phones and computers, however. Online activism is hard to do without those devices. 

A Social Justice Side-Hustle

Break Free From Plastic’s number one issue is reducing plastic waste, but discussing social justice issues takes a close second. This is noted in the coalition’s mission statement in which they say the group hopes to achieve “environmental justice, social justice, public health, and human rights lead government policy, not the demands of elites and corporations.”

The coalition demonstrated this by issuing several press releases during the summer of 2020 promoting the Black Lives Matter movement. The coalition compiled statements from environmentalists in the Philippines, New Zealand, Tanzania, South Africa, Ireland, and elsewhere to condemn systemic racism in the United States. 

While Break Free From Plastic is quick to criticize American leaders, they have been silent when it comes to criticizing leaders of the countries like China that produce a lot of plastic waste (and a lot of human rights atrocities).