Plastic pollution is too big of an issue to ignore, and it is time to review those old, imprinted habits. The problem is well acknowledged, but one may wonder where to start. Whether at a household or a company operation level, we must assess and mitigate our plastic footprints.
To begin, product manufacturers should evaluate their complete value chain, from suppliers to final product delivery, and implement more sustainable flows. For instance, think of a shampoo bottle and all it takes to be manufactured and delivered to the customer. Then consider service providers, such as a cruise line, who, in a less obvious way, often use an outsized amount of plastic in their operations. Then look at one-off activities such as events where plastic waste mitigation is getting attention, given the single-use culture of our current “take-make-waste” linear economy.
Calculating a plastic footprint will empower organisations to take more meaningful and impactful environmental action, creating a baseline for a plastic sustainability approach.
A robust plastic mitigation strategy tackles upstream, operational, and downstream plastic in the value chain. It takes a holistic approach to all aspects of the problem. Plastic prevention and elimination actions, followed by increased recycling and investment in collection and recycling capacity, are strategic actions companies can take to minimise environmental impacts while meeting sustainability or ESG goals.
Once a company has quantified its plastic footprint, its next step is improving its plastic impact and developing mitigation strategies. Despite its straightforwardness, the application and approach can vary depending on the goals, purpose, and scope of the assessment. By gathering procurement data on the type of plastics flowing into their facilities, such as packaging or shipping materials, a company can leverage upstream discussions and possible methods to reduce waste. One way to do this is by empowering product designers and engineers to be innovative thinkers on reducing plastic use and designing for circularity. In addition, final product design and packaging should consider current waste management practices in markets of interest.
Many organisations use these findings to help save money and identify partnership opportunities across the value chain. Shifting from single use to reuse alternatives typically results in long-term cost savings for a company. Reuse is often associated with high-quality and high-value products, followed by increased consumer preference and loyalty. It is a win-win for companies and the environment.
This doesn’t mean a company needs to revolutionise its value chain and completely change its product and branding. Instead, a footprint assessment provides a roadmap for success, where mitigation actions are taken at a company’s pace. For example, a health and beauty company recently learned that with zero investment, they could reduce waste sent to landfills by less than half (from 62% to 30%) through immediate internal changes. An example is proper on-site sorting and leveraging available public waste management at a local recycling centre. This year, the company plans to implement additional actions, with the goal of receiving a zero-waste operations certification in 2024.
As companies evaluate materials to reduce waste and increase recycling, they often realise the major global recycling infrastructure problem. One way a company can support environmental plastic waste collection and recycling is through the purchase of plastic credits. A plastic credit represents the recovery or recycling of one ton of plastic material, which has an associated claim that can be transferred between organisations. Companies can use these credits to mitigate external environmental plastic waste beyond an organisation’s control and the unavoidable volume portion of their plastic footprint. Funding from credits is currently scaling the removal of environmental legacy plastic pollution, building new waste management infrastructure, and creating repurposing and recycling capacity.
Plastic waste recycling credits, which incentivise the diversion of plastic waste from landfills or incineration, represent a viable pathway to accelerating the investment in plastic sorting and recycling infrastructure. These credits, certified using an independent public protocol with third-party audits, can balance the residue of plastic that can’t otherwise find a home.
Multiple options are available for companies actively planning to meet their ESG targets, depending on their resources and needs. ClimeCo is well-equipped with vetted staff and familiar with the steps needed to exceed sustainability goals to help brands begin setting targets, assessing operational impact, or balancing their impact with credits.
Once a company has set a baseline through a plastic footprint assessment and built a mitigation roadmap, it can clearly communicate its strategy to stakeholders and customers. According to the Shelton Group’s 2021 Good Company Report, acting environmentally and socially responsible has become a risk mitigator. Customer purchasing decisions can increase or decrease depending on whether the perception is positive or negative. Therefore, it is as important as ever for businesses to communicate their strides regarding sustainability practices to inform, instil transparency, and inspire change.
This opinion piece was written by Leticia Socal, Sr. Manager, Plastics and Recycling, and Chris Parker, Director, Plastics Programme at ClimeCo. It originally appeared here.