The challenge of plastic pollution has been growing for years. But last year, environmental activists brought it to the attention of everyday Americans. Consequently, National Geographic featured the problem of single-use plastic items like water bottles and plastic shopping bags that end up in the ocean.

Celebrities began speaking out, and many cities moved to implement bans on plastic bags.

This year, plastics will get personal. Marine debris activists are coordinating action – and are using data and “citizen science” to target specific companies. Last fall, the Break Free From Plastic coalition mobilized 10,000 volunteers in 42 countries to undertake what amounted to a global beach-trash census.

The coalition wanted to know which 10 companies contributed the largest proportion of marine debris. And they found out.

The list included Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive. According to the coalition, the top three companies alone, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle, generated 14 per cent of the identifiable plastic pollution found worldwide.

Many of these brands are starting to tackle the problem.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that more than 250 companies, including many on the Top 10 polluters list, had signed a Global Commitment to help eliminate plastic pollution. This could be a game changer because it establishes minimum requirements, sets targets, and requires companies to report back on their progress.

On December 31, 2018, the newly formed Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance (a coalition of 25 institutional investors) challenged PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Nestle SA, and Unilever to step up their game.

Non-profit group As You Sow as well as socially-responsible investment firm Walden Asset Management began prodding companies to do better with plastics by pressuring them on behalf of their shareholders. They sent letters to nine CEOs, questioning their membership in an industry association. They accused the association of using state pre-emption laws to discourage communities from banning plastic bags.

The letters could be a sign of further pressure and future change to come.

The companies that sign the Global Commitment pledge to reduce single-use plastics. Activists will be watching them closely to ensure they follow through, and don’t default to false solutions. Advocates are sending the clear message: “Expanded recycling programs aren’t going to cut it anymore. You need to fundamentally change how you do business.”