Plastic has many benefits ranging from reducing food waste by providing packaging to cutting transport pollution due to its light weight. However, waste plastic is undervalued by the economy due to externalization of environmental costs. In a new discussion paper, Trucost estimates that scaling up companies’ use of sustainable plastic could deliver environmental savings of $3.5 billion.
Trucost, which specializes in environmental data and natural capital valuation, asserts that the environmental cost to society of plastic use by the consumer goods sector alone is estimated at $75 billion, largely due to climate change and pollution impacts, in particular marine pollution. Around 8 percent of current fossil fuel dependency is attributed to plastic production, and much of the world’s plastic is used just once and then thrown away – resulting in 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging, worth up to $120 billion annually, being lost to the economy.
“By assessing the environmental cost benefits of sustainable plastic initiatives, companies and governments can better understand the business case for investment,” said Richard Mattison, chief executive of Trucost.
Along with a host of recommendations that aim to increase access to feedstock, improve product quality, address financial challenges, and boost market demand, Trucost suggests that policymakers correctly value plastic and incentivise companies and consumers to recycle it into new products, reduce the need for virgin polymers, and encourage switches to plant-based and biodegradable plastic. Unsurprisingly, the organization believes that the true value of a circular economy would be much more clear if the true price for virgin, fossil fuel-based plastic was paid, rather than only felt by communities and wider society.
Luckily, companies have already begun shifting their mindset. According to Doug Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, an organization that supported the discussion paper, “Companies now realize that environmental sustainability has a positive impact not only on the communities they serve, but also on their own bottom line.”
“Managing the plastic ecosystem through recycling, reuse and closed-loop methods can create jobs, save money, improve brand value and create supply-chain efficiency.”
The case studies include Dell’s OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One Desktop computer, which is produced using recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment from the company’s take-back scheme, and a low-carbon polymer called Soloplast that Algix makes from algae. Trucost conducted environmental benefit analyses and calculated that if these processes were scaled up across entire industries, millions – or even billions – of environmental cost savings could be realized: $700 million per year if the entire computer manufacturing industry switched to closed-loop recycled plastic. By switching to Algix’s algae-based plastic, the soft drinks sector could reduce its environmental costs by $1.3 billion and the footwear sector could do so by $1.5 billion.
“There are significant benefits to embracing a circular economy,” said Scott O’Connell, the Director of Environmental Affairs at Dell. “Our closed-loop plastics supply chain enables a resource-efficient product made from recycled content that costs Dell less. Companies need to realize sustainability programs are just good business.”