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Waste Not
Tackling the Unseen Climate Costs of a Plastic Planet

Whether it’s using the carrot of incentives or the stick of regulations, change is possible — and strongly desired. So, what can brands do? Be proactive and make the extra effort to find and choose recycled plastic whenever possible.

Heat waves, floods, wildfires and the like are an ongoing reminder that climate change is already here. Mankind’s actions have permanently changed the world and it’s only getting worse.

The news is full of constant reminders of the urgency of the crisis and the need for mitigation. A key part of this is identifying opportunities to make meaningful changes wherever they may lie. Human activity has increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million to 416 parts per million in the past 150 years, and plastic has contributed more than many realize.

Plastic pollution is a scourge many environmentally conscious individuals and organizations bemoan; but concerns usually focus on plastic’s impact on shorelines, marine life, and risks of proliferating microplastics.

Unfortunately, plastic doesn’t get a free pass when it comes to climate change, either: Manufacturing virgin plastics emit significant levels of CO2 — between one-and-a-half to three times their weight. And the very building blocks of plastic itself are highly problematic from the moment they’re unearthed.

The many environmental ills of plastic

Retracing the steps of common plastic items reveals a trail of destruction that few consumers or businesses truly internalize. To begin with, plastics are created using petrochemical — which must be extracted from underground — and those drilling, mining, fracking and other processes are both destructive to the surrounding environment and consume large amounts of energy, burning fuel and sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Manufacturing plastic resins with that petroleum is also a carbon-intensive activity. PET, the plastic commonly used for bottles and other packaging, creates 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of manufactured resin. Other plastics range from 1.5-3 metric tons of CO2 for each ton of plastic created.

Further, after plastic products and packaging have served their intended purpose — which may not be for very long for single-use plastics — it enters the waste stream. An average of three-quarters of the plastic created annually becomes waste within the year. The best-case scenario is that plastic winds up in landfills; however globally, roughly 25 percent of it ends up incinerated. When that happens, 1.37 metric tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere for every ton burned, not to mention the other dangerous gases and chemicals released during this process.

When added up, one ton of plastic can be responsible for three to five times its volume in dangerous, and even cancerous, greenhouse gases that directly contribute to climate change.

Recycling is a real alternative

In most regions, there’s already enough potential supply of recyclable plastic to meet current demand. Technological advances — from automated sorting to chemical innovations — exist to recycle the vast majority of plastics.

That means, with the proper systems and motivations enacted by local governments and businesses, virgin plastic could easily become the exception rather than the rule. Today, only 10 percent of plastic is recycled worldwide; but up to 50 percent of plastic waste has the potential to be commercially recycled, so there is a huge opportunity. Already some forward-thinking entities do just that — such as the UK Government and the Canadian province of Quebec holding producers accountable for the recyclability of their packaging. Other governments are also incentivizing the use of recycled and easily recyclable plastics. The European Union began taxing non-recycled plastic waste this year; and the United States is exploring a Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act.

Whether it’s using the carrot of incentives or the stick of regulations, change is possible — and strongly desired. 94 percent of US consumers are worried about the environmental impact of product packaging; this is a rare majority spanning generations and the political divide.

Now is the time for manufacturers and brands to step up, do the right thing for the planet, meet customer expectations, and even save costs. So, what can brands do? Be proactive and make the extra effort to find and choose recycled plastic whenever possible. Beyond that, design packaging such that it minimizes material and is reusable, easily sorted and recyclable to close the loop.

The solutions are within reach and change is coming; and that change is driven by the motivation and small decisions made by suppliers, brands and consumers. To learn more about how you or your company can reduce your carbon footprint by choosing recycled content, visit