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The Next Economy
Do We Need Science-Based Targets for Plastic?

How much plastic recycling is enough to save our seas? It might be time to do the math and set forth quantifiable expectations and accountabilities for plastic production, use and recovery, as we’ve started to do with emissions.

As concern for ocean plastic spreads, the buck is falling on consumer goods companies to take part in keeping plastic out of the sea. Companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, L’Oreal, Dell, HP and plenty of others have joined initiatives that bring companies together in action.

Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, for example, includes 30+ companies and environmental organizations that commit to reduce their use of plastics and, where possible, reinvent products and services that damage ocean wildlife or ecosystems. Collectively, they are investing $100M in piloting solutions to reduce ocean trash. Then, there’s the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which involves hundreds of companies and organizations committing to 2025 targets to change the way we think of plastic — including making 100 percent of packaging reusable, recyclable and compostable and setting a recycled content target for plastic packaging. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste — which has grown to 39 member companies, mostly from the chemical, plastics and energy sectors, since its launch in January — has committed over US$1 billion, with the goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years, to help end plastic waste in the environment. And NextWave, led by ocean conservation NGO Lonely Whale, has convened companies including IKEA and HP to launch initiatives that integrate recycled ocean-bound plastic into their products.

This week, I was invited to an event celebrating HP’s launch of its newest PC, the Elite Dragonfly, which is made with a small portion of ocean-bound plastics. The speaker enclosure component, which is about the size of a thumb, is made of 45 percent recycled ABS plastic, blended with 5 percent recycled PET — the ocean-bound plastic portion. The recovered plastic is sourced through a partnership with a recycling company in Haiti, which collects plastic waste from beachfront areas that have no municipal waste system.

Similar stories about nylon fishnets getting recycled into things such as Interface carpet tiles or PET plastic caught in fisherman’s nets getting turned into IKEA tablecloths provide hope that we can do something positive with plastic waste.

The concept behind initiatives like these is solid: collect plastic waste from beaches; then develop a process to clean it, recycle it and turn it into new products. It hits two birds with one stone by keeping trash out of the ocean and reducing virgin materials going into new products.

But, how far is plastic recycling actually getting us?

The real issue, however, is scale. With an estimated 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, we have to tackle the problem in a very big way. HP’s new laptop incorporates a piece of recycled, ocean-bound plastic that is smaller than a thumbnail. At that rate, it might take 100 computers to use the amount of plastic recycled from a single bottle. If one person tosses multiple plastic bottles a day for a year, it would take 100,000 computers to absorb the plastic waste from their bottles. Hyperbolic examples aside, the balance of how much we produce compared to how much we recycle is still way off and needs major re-alignment.

Naturally, different types of plastic have different levels of ease of recycling. As a result, the percentage of recycled material that can be used varies based on the characteristics and function of the product. PET is one of the easiest plastics to recycle, and companies including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have set targets to achieve 50 percent recycled plastic in bottles by 2030. Including 50 percent recycled content in a new water bottle is helpful, but it means that we are only halfway towards decoupling consumption from resource use and waste creation.

Recycled plastic targets set by companies are only one part of the equation. Consumer behavior, collection, recycling infrastructure, business model redesign and regulation all play key roles, as well. For example, “printers sit in the home and people often want them to be white,” said Ellen Jackowski, Global Head of Sustainability Strategy & Innovation at HP, explaining one of the constraints the company faces when it comes to increasing recycled content.

Regulation may help change both corporate practices and consumer expectations. On September 14, California passed a law requiring all bottles sold in the state to have 50 percent recycled content by 2030; Europe will require 30 percent recycled content by 2030.

The size of the solution should match the size of the problem

We know that solving our plastic problem will require dialing up the level of ambition across all fronts.

The bigger question is: How much further do we need to go, and by when?

What is the appropriate burden for each actor to take? How much of our plastic problem should consumer goods companies be responsible for? It’s the classic question of who pays the price for environmental externalities. Should businesses be expected to cleanup as much plastic they produce, a portion of the plastic they produce? Or nothing at all — which is the closer to the status quo?

Can the global approach to climate change inform our approach to plastic?

In the realm of climate change, science-based targets have outlined expectations for the emissions reductions that make sense for individual companies. Companies that set science-based targets align them with the global carbon budget, as outlined in the Paris Agreement — in proportion to their own GHG emissions.

Perhaps, we need a similar framework for plastic that would align responsibilities for cleanup, recycling and reduction of plastic products with the level of change needed to spare our seas — and our environment, at large — from plastic. Such a framework should include expectations for multiple actors — including consumers, producers and municipalities.

It might be time to do the math and set forth quantifiable expectations and accountabilities for plastic production, use and recovery, as we’ve started to do with emissions.