Take a moment to think about the things you use and throw away every day that are made from plastic: an empty shampoo bottle, the container from your salad at lunch (and the little container for the dressing), that pen that won’t work. And what about those things you’re holding on to in the depths of your closet, inevitably destined for the dumpster? That overused pair of sneakers, your old broken flip phone, a keyboard that hasn’t been used in a decade?
Plastic has transformed the way we live and enabled innovation in countless sectors, but simultaneously has contributed to one of the largest waste problems facing the planet. The challenge right now is that it’s no one’s responsibility to track plastic. The material just gets passed from production, to building products, to consumers, and ultimately to waste facilities or worse, into ecosystems like the ocean.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has developed one initiative to tackling this enormous problem, called the Plastic Disclosure Project. The project’s goal is to encourage companies to track the amount and types of plastic used in their operations and supply chain in order to optimize and reduce the related environmental impact.
Why should companies take the responsibility of tracking their plastics? To answer this question, UNEP published a report in partnership with Trucost, which quantifies the full cost associated with plastic used in the consumer goods industry. That amount is more than $75 billion per year. Yes that’s billion with a "b," and per year.
This number incorporates things like direct environmental harm (e.g. damaging the ocean and fisheries), the loss of valuable resources when plastic is sent to landfill instead of being recycled, and the costs from carbon pollution in the plastic manufacturing process. That is a huge economic loss that companies are not accountable for, which instead gets absorbed by us all.
While there has been impressive growth in the amount of companies reporting their carbon emissions to third party groups, it turns out very few companies are currently disclosing information about their plastics use. Out of the 100 companies analyzed in the report, only about half tracked any sort of information about the plastic utilized in their business. One large benefit for an organization to collect data on how it uses plastic is that it illuminates ways to decrease waste and become more efficient in its operations. Additionally, it allows it to identify effective ways to reduce the economic and environmental impacts mentioned above.
Another clear take-away from the report is that companies have a compelling business opportunity to take a leadership role in managing their plastic use. Increasing numbers of consumers are choosing products that are earth conscious, investors are asking more companies about how they’re managing environmental risks, and optimizing the amount of plastic going into products improves efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The report identifies the largest natural capital costs: the biggest areas for improvement are in the food, soft drinks and non-durable consumer goods industries. However, managing the quality and quantity of their plastics use does not have to be a financial burden.
Finding solutions to the plastics problem is a massive and complex undertaking.
There are numerous angles to approach this challenge:
- Not all plastic is created equal, so companies should be looking for ways to incorporate more recyclable and bio-based plastics into their packaging and products, whilst also looking for ways to reduce the absolute amount of plastic used.
- Companies can develop their own recycling and take back programs for tough-to-recycle items such as electronics and furniture. They should look at the plastic use in their supply chain and choose their suppliers strategically.
- Some companies can even take the lead in supporting the development of better recycling facilities within the regions they operate in. It is estimated that 85 percent of plastic waste is not recycled globally. That is an astounding amount of wasted valuable material that could be reused!
Not only are these actions the responsible thing to do, they are also becoming financially smart decisions for businesses.
Plastic enables us to do so much, from preserving our food, to keeping us connected, to saving our lives using medical devices. It would be unreasonable to cast plastic as the villain in our world, but its role has gone from innovative to abusive. I challenge companies think systemically about how to eliminate plastic waste from their products and recognize its impact on the planet. One step forward would be to begin reporting via the Plastic Disclosure Project. By doing so, companies have an opportunity to put us on track to developing a more restorative, regenerative economy, which is critical in an increasingly resource-constrained world.