Recognizing the value of plastic
Nothing is more symbolic of all that is wrong with our throwaway society than plastic pollution. Often used for just a few minutes, plastic bags, bottles and healthcare products end up in landfill sites where the valuable materials and energy resources they contain are wasted. Worse still, in some parts of the world, plastic is simply dumped and ends up in rivers and the ocean.
For the first time Trucost has put a cost on the environmental impact of plastic through research we did for the Plastic Disclosure Project. We calculate that plastic costs the planet a colossal $75bn costs per year in the consumer goods sector alone, due mainly to the carbon emissions from plastic manufacturing processes. Oceanic pollution accounts for $13bn as a result of impacts such as the harm done to marine wildlife by discarded nylon fishing nets and ingesting microscopic plastic particles.
The findings really seem to have sparked debate in the global media. Around 80 news articles were written about the research after it was published, and those were just the ones in English. There were more than 50 articles published in China. This is in no small part due to the fantastic support of the UN Environment Programme which published the research at its recent conference in Nairobi.
The research was a massive undertaking as few companies publish data on plastic. Where they did, we used the information, but otherwise the research involved painstaking modelling of plastic consumption in 16 consumer goods sectors. We focused on consumer goods because it comprises industries like toy manufacturing, household goods, and food and soft drinks companies, which use lots of plastic in their products and packaging, and therefore have most to win or lose.
The aim of the research is very much to raise companies’ awareness of the risks and opportunities of plastic. The main risk comes from failing to anticipate tighter regulation of plastic, which could mean companies are forced to pay some or all of the natural capital costs of the plastic they use. Opportunities spring from rethinking product design and manufacturing processes to enable the reuse and recycling of plastic. Good plastics management, especially in the food and soft drinks sector, is already saving some $4bn per year, and this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.
We believe companies should seize the opportunities now. The work of ten companies including Puma, Aveda and Shaw with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute points the way forward. In a separate report we published in early June, Trucost showed how the efforts of these firms to make products more sustainable are paying off for the companies in terms of reduced costs, improved product value and new revenue streams, as well as for the environment. The latest research contains case studies on good management of plastic by companies such as Interface, Lush and Coca Cola.
For many firms the first step is to report how much plastic their business uses. The research found that more than half of consumer goods companies do not publish any data on plastic, even where it is a significant environmental impact with serious cost implications for the business. This is where the Plastic Disclosure Project comes in. It is hoping to replicate the success of the CDP on carbon by making plastic use and disposal a mainstream performance indicator reported by companies. Disclosure will help drive effective measurement and management of plastic, reducing its impacts and revealing the potential of sustainable design and manufacturing.
As with any innovative, ground-breaking research, there are limitations. Plastic has many environmental benefits, for instance, in packaging it helps prevent food waste, and when used to make car parts its low weight reduce carbon and air pollution from road vehicles. But it was beyond the scope of the research to quantify the vast range of these benefits by comparing plastic to alternative materials.
On the other side of the equation, while the upstream impacts of producing plastic feedstock are accounted for, it was not possible to include the manufacturing stage where plastic is used to make products because of the diversity of activities in the consumer goods sector. We also need much greater scientific research on the impacts of plastic in the ocean.
None of this should detract from the message of the research. We need to use plastic in an environmentally sustainable way, rather than as a disposable material. We need to treat plastic as a valuable resource which is kept in use, benefitting us all, rather than being wasted and letting nature pick up the bill.