Often designed to throw away, plastic simply does not disappear. As plastic waste piles up, public and private sector actors push for innovative solutions to managing the mess

Fans flocking to see award-winning actor Jeremy Irons in the recent film Trashed are likely to skip on the merchandise as they file out of the cinema. Irons’ exposé of consumerism’s toxic legacy leaves no room for doubt that the issue of plastic waste must be tackled without delay.

By challenging consumers to acknowledge the impact of their behaviour, Trashed drives the issue home at ground zero. Simultaneously, several other compelling initiatives are under way in the public and private sector.

Striking at the heart of the issue is the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP). This investor-led initiative encourages companies to disclose their plastic use and waste. The United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Global Partnership for Marine Litter has made the PDP a pillar of its 2013 programme, which promises to significantly raise its profile, globally.

Progress is being made elsewhere, too. In February 2013, a group of scientists published a groundbreaking study on the toxicity of plastics in the science journal Nature, calling for the reclassification of certain plastics as “hazardous”. By doing so, “environmental agencies would have the power to restore affected habitats and prevent more dangerous debris from accumulating”, say the authors.

Piecing together the plastic puzzle

From car parts to construction materials, household goods and clothing, plastic is present in almost everything you touch and use daily. It is hardly surprising then, that 280m tonnes of it is produced globally, every year.

The hitch is that half of all plastic products manufactured are tossed out after a single use. Because plastic is a permanent material, the waste just keeps piling up – mainly in the marine environment.

Plastic now constitutes about 90% of all garbage floating on the ocean’s surface – that’s 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile, according to UNEP’s Plastic Ocean report. That doesn’t include the unmeasured volumes floating just beneath the surface, or deeper down the water column.

The garbage is eventually swept up in powerful currents, ending in swirling vortexes (called ocean gyres), to form enormous floating garbage patches. The largest of these, a floating mass of plastic almost three times the size of France, can be found in the north Pacific. Here, plastic pieces outnumber sea life by a measure of 6 to 1.

The plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it photo-degrades with sunlight, all the while accumulating pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) at levels ranging from 100,000 to 1m times those normally found in seawater.

The toxic debris litters the shores and is often mistaken for food by marine life. It eventually breaks down into deadly plastic dust that can cause cancer if inhaled or ingested.

Forcing change

Outlawing certain toxic plastics is a decisive step forward. According to the Nature report’s lead author Chelsea Rochman, there is a strong case for classifying plastic as hazardous: “78% of the chemicals already considered a hazardous substance in the US and 61% of those in the EU are found in plastic waste, either as an ingredient of plastic or as chemicals absorbed”. 

She says governments should take leadership by exercising existing laws, such as the US EPA Superfund, which manages hazardous waste, or CERCLA (the US Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), and the EU Waste Framework Directive to manage plastic material containing recognised chemical pollutants.

“Once something is considered hazardous it can be handled nationally; technology forcing can go into effect to make safer products that are benign by design,” she explains. 

Rochman says that European commission restriction on hazardous substance (known as RoHS) and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directives sparked the initial idea to re-classify plastic as hazardous. The team has already engaged with the EPA Superfund Region 9 in the US, which is currently working on a risk assessment of plastic debris.

Global investor clout

The reality is that most companies use plastic as part of their business. Concepts such as mass market, mass produced, long shelf-life and on-the-go consumption, coupled with plastic’s high consumer touch point and the brand-association this implies, create huge demand for highly durable, non-degradable plastics.

“We never say: ‘don’t use plastic’,” says Doug Woodring, founder of the PDP and co-founder of the NGO Ocean Recovery Alliance. Instead, he argues that plastic needs to be designed and managed in such a way that it has no environmental impact when produced and used, or when it finds its way into the environment.

Until now there has been very little incentive to do so. However, the Plastic Disclosure Project promises to change that. Similar to carbon disclosure, the PDP engages the investor community to incite organisations to measure, monitor and efficiently manage their plastic footprint.

Given the global nature of oceans and the trans-boundary movement of plastic waste, a global effort is required if the issue of plastic waste is to be truly tackled. Inciting the private sector to address the issue of plastic waste is one way of neatly sidestepping barriers presented by national borders and legislation.

The PDP is the “only approach to tackling plastic pollution that is global, scalable, leverages existing systems, is easily implemented, fosters adaptation and innovation, and engages companies and institutions in a way that rewards them for creativity and competitive instinct”, explains Woodring. The project, he says, is  “truly game-changing”.

Sound business sense

Sustainability experts argue that plastic disclosure makes sense for businesses. Annual plastic reporting establishes trends and best practices, raises investor and stakeholder awareness, and defines investment risks and opportunities related to plastic.

Reporting is not only “the responsible thing to do”; from the branding perspective “it is a smart, savvy, and forward-looking marketing decision”, says Anna Clark, president of Dallas-based environment and communications consultancy EarthPeople. “Any initiative that saves resources, builds the reputation, and delivers a return on investment is a better way to do business”, she adds.

A growing number of environmental consultants that already assist their clients with carbon or water footprint analysis are now adding plastic footprinting to their portfolio. 2012 saw the first movers in this space.

UC Berkeley is using PDP as part of its zero-waste-to-landfill programme. Lush Cosmetics is using PDP to improve the environmental footprint of their products. US electronics manufacturer Paragon is also mapping its plastic footprint.

Several key stakeholder groups are already supporting the project. These include the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia (ASrIA), UNEP Finance Initiative, Sustainable Investment Research Institute Australia (SIRIS), Responsible Investment Research Association India (RIRA), and the Taiwan Plastic Industry Design Centre.

Onlookers have raised concerns that the PDP might add to the audit fatigue incurred by large enterprises, but Clark argues otherwise. “For companies new to sustainability, we find the PDP questionnaire an ideal tool for introducing the process and benefits of reporting to a company with no experience in this space. The PDP helps formalise the process and give management a common language for tracking and managing their plastic footprint while communicating their progress to stakeholders.” This gives them a competitive edge.

Incentive to change

To date, the plastic waste issue has not had a high enough profile to warrant private and public sector attention. “This is why we have a large global problem today – where our consumption outstrips the waste management and recycling,” says Woodring.

Resolving the plastic waste issue requires a multi-pronged approach. Initiatives such as disclosure will play a key role in solving the plastic waste puzzle, but it is unlikely that voluntary initiatives will be sufficient to do more than take the edge off the growing problems.

In April, the European commission is due to announce its plan for setting quantitative national targets for marine litter reduction, in line with its Rio20+ commitments. Already, in March, the commission also escalated the issue of plastic waste management in the form of a green paper and a formal consultation.

According to Woodring, the PDP is a perfect tool to help member countries achieve their reduction targets, by helping the private and public sectors to focus on better design, more recycled content in products, less supply chain waste, better bring-back programmes, and use of new materials.

The first step, says UNEP programme officer Heidi Savelli, is getting the word out. “Once an organisation takes the step to work with the PDP, a reduction in plastic waste will naturally follow,” she says.

With formal backing from UNEP, this year the PDP’s reach is poised to go global. “Outreach is key to letting organisations know about the PDP,” says Savelli. “UNEP and PDP will collaborate to further develop and strengthen the Global Partnership on Marine Litter through increased outreach and will provide information and training opportunities to partners on PDP,” she adds.

Plastic is certainly a useful material, but the time has come to rethink the purposes for which it is manufactured and used. Treating plastics as persistent, non-degradable wastes, restricting their use to durable products and greatly improving their collection and recycling is crucial from this point on.

As ever, it will be the forward-thinking companies that lead the change. As Woodring says: “The brands that take the lead in making improvements, and admit the communities they serve have a problem, and can be part of that solution, will win.”

Flowing problem

Rivers are conduits for floating garbage to reach the ocean. By totalling the length of the riverbanks from the world’s 20 longest rivers alone, there is an additional 140,000 kilometres – roughly three times the world’s circumference – of coastline connecting urban areas to the seas.

Source: Ocean Recovery Alliance

Plastic waste: stark facts

  • The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
  • After Ireland created a 15 cent charge per plastic bag in 2002, bag consumption dropped by 90%. The programme has raised millions of euros in revenue. In 2008, the average person in Ireland used 27 plastic bags, while the average person in Britain used 220. In 2010, plastic bag use in Britain increased by 5%.
  • More than 3.2m tonnes of PVC is thrown away in the US each year. Only 0.25% is recycled. Global chlorine production for PVC uses almost as much energy as the annual output of eight medium-sized nuclear power plants each year.

Source: Clean Air Council

consumers  Environment  Rikki Stancich  waste 

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