November 5, 2019
By Jackie Krentzman
Recently, in September 2019, Facebook announced a ban on single-use plastic bottles on its campuses worldwide. The company received widespread praise for this step, and Von Hernandez, a 2003 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, hopes that it leads other corporations to follow suit and make a commitment to banning not only the use of—but also the production of—single-use plastics globally.
Hernandez received the Goldman Prize for leading a campaign in the Philippines that secured the world’s first national ban on incinerators. Incinerators create toxic waste that is then released into the air and buried in landfills, which leach into the water supply and oceans. The ash produced in the process contains heavy metals that are linked to birth defects and other severe negative health outcomes.
Hernandez parlayed the visibility and support he received for winning the Prize into his next pursuit—he is now the global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic. The international organization’s goal is to drastically reduce the production of plastic pollution, which causes irreparable harm to oceans, sea and land animals, and humans. For them, the solution includes convincing individuals—and workplaces—to change consumption habits and replace plastics with reusable alternatives. They also seek to apply pressure throughout each step along the plastic supply chain, from production to disposal.
“When we created Break Free From Plastic, we agreed that to achieve our vision of a future free from plastic pollution, we needed to look at the issue in a holistic way,” Hernandez says. “This means looking at plastic at the different stages of the life-cycle, and not just treating it as a waste management or consumer responsibility issue, which is what the plastic industry wants. Looking at it that way takes the industry off the hook and allows it to continue producing even more plastics.”
Here are a few disturbing facts on plastic:
- If there are no drastic interventions, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
- Today, the world consumes an estimated five trillion plastic bags per year and only about 1% is recycled.
- Nearly a million plastic bottles per minute are produced—about 480 million single-use plastic bottles in 2016.
- Plastic takes years to break down. The Marine Conservancy estimates that it takes 450 years to break down a plastic bottle and 400 years to break down disposable diapers.
For Hernandez, turning his attention to plastics was a natural outgrowth of his work banning waste incineration, as both are forms of hazardous waste—usually created by multinational companies in the Global North and disproportionately impacting the Global South.
Hernandez says that when large-scale awareness of the damage caused by plastics began, the onus was placed on developing countries, mainly in the Global South. However, he says, that is a false narrative. “The crisis is being driven by multinationals,” he says.
Break Free From Plastic differs from other groups fighting for a plastic ban in its focus on the entire value chain. Many people equate plastic waste—think all those plastic bottles and six-pack rings strewn on beaches—with their negative impact on oceans, but that is just one byproduct of the problem.
“I think it’s fair to say that the issue of marine litter was initially driving the agenda on plastics,” he says. “But, more and more, people are waking up to the reality that this issue is much broader than that. Plastic pollution is a public health issue. It is a climate issue. And an environmental justice issue. We need to consider the entire plastic life-cycle, from the extraction of fossil fuels, to the transformation of fossil fuel by-products into plastics by petrochemical plants, and the manufacture and consumption of various plastic products, which leads to waste disposal, including incineration of plastic that releases the most toxic substances known to science. Then there is still leakage into the environment and the ocean, where these waste plastics, along with their chemical additives, break down into microplastics, which are, in turn, ingested by fish, birds, and marine life before ending up on our dinner plates.”
The greatest culprits driving the increase in the production of plastics are the oil and gas companies together with their petrochemical industry affiliates (including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and other oil and gas companies), as 99% of plastics are created from fossil fuels. 
Therefore, Hernandez says, the responsibility for reducing plastic waste should not lie with the individual (although he certainly encourages everyone to reduce their personal use of plastic products), or even local governments, but rather with the fossil fuel industry and the multinational corporations whose business models are heavily dependent on throw-away and disposable plastic. According to the brand audits conducted by Break Free From Plastic members around the world, consumer goods companies—like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle—are among the most prolific plastic polluters across the planet.
During the organization’s brand audits, members document the plastic production and distribution by a company and publicize this information. In 2019, thousands of people conducted 700 brand audits in 84 countries (the organization has created a toolkit for those who want to participate).
“We need to challenge the current narrative on plastics and hold corporations to account for their role in perpetuating this crisis,” he says. “The real solution does not lie in more recycling or better waste management; it lies in reducing the amounts of plastic being produced and deployed into our societies. We need to compel companies and retailers to significantly invest in alternative delivery systems, especially refill and reuse models, which do not rely on throwaway plastic to bring their goods to the consumer.”
Hernandez notes that “companies cannot say they are concerned about the problem and yet continue to justify their reliance on the same ‘disposable plastic’ business model. Recycling will never be enough to solve this crisis. Industry knows very well that its track record on this has been dismal, with less than 10% of plastics produced since the 1950s having been recycled.”
Break Free From Plastic also frames the problem as an environmental justice issue. Companies often locate petrochemical plants and refineries in or near poor communities—including in the United States, Hernandez says.
Governments must play a role, too, by enacting the right set of policies that place responsibility for this problem mainly onto corporations, which have been knowingly creating and instigating this crisis. Banning single-use and problematic plastics is a step in the right direction.
Hernandez also points to a wave of policy changes that resulted, at least in part, from education by and advocacy from Break Free From Plastic. Earlier this year, the European Union adopted a directive to ban single-use plastics and require corporate responsibility around the issue.
Hernandez notes that the credibility and support generated from winning the Goldman Prize has been a critical factor in his ability to grow the movement. “The Prize is part of who I am,” he says. “The Prize has given me a bigger platform to work on these issues on a global, not just national, level. The Prize itself has been associated with the need to defend the rights of communities and their struggles to oppose environmental injustice, wherever that happens. For this reason, I am always honored to be carrying the badge of the Goldman Prize.”
Several other Prize winners are currently engaged in fighting plastic pollution, says Hernandez. He works with Yuyun Ismawati (2009) of Indonesia, who is leading a national coalition working to implement zero waste programs in her country. Other Prize winners who are active members of Break Free From Plastic include Prigi Arisandi (2011), also from Indonesia, Bobby Peek (1998) from South Africa, Russia’s Olga Speranskaya (2009), and Ricardo Navarro (1995) from the El Salvador.
Together with allies in the movement, Hernandez is encouraged by the impact that the movement has made, and he sees that the momentum for change on this issue is likely to escalate further.
“Just over the last three years, the narrative around plastic has started to shift. An increasing number of governments are taking action against single-use plastics and our movement itself has been experiencing phenomenal growth,” he says. “For us, these developments show that people want real, lasting, and systemic change. We are hopeful that together with other movements, we will be able to transform the system into one that is respectful of our ecological limits and the rights of communities and future generations.”