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Plastics Are a Problem... So Now What?

Public perception of the massive problems created by plastics pollution is at an all-time high. The Guardian recently published a video by a British diver off Bali’s coast that showed masses of plastics floating in tropical waters. Great garbage gyre patches in the Pacific and North Atlantic have also recently been discovered and documented. Aside from being unsightly, plastics can create serious issues in wildlife habitats and can be damaging to human health.

Plastics are clearly a problem. But what is the solution?

The issues

Plastic production has skyrocketed from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 335 million tons in 2016. It is a common component in manufacturing, textiles, consumer products and household goods, and the ecosystem of food production and distribution due to its flexibility, durability, and relative expense. Plastics have become so ubiquitous in our environment that they are now considered a geologic indicator of the Anthropocene.

These plastics create various impacts throughout their life, including:

  • Environmental damage during the extraction of non-renewable raw materials
  • Intensive energy needs during production
  • Potential health hazards during usage and after disposal (from toxins like Bisphenol-A)
  • Waste pollution and/or food chain bioaccumulation at end of life

Some 8.3 billion tons of plastics have ever been created. About 79% of this (6.3 billion tons) now exists as waste. While some categories of plastics are infinitely recyclable, like PET/PETE and HDPE, these plastics make up a fraction of total plastic production globally. A meager 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled, only 10% of which was more than once. And while the availability of biodegradable plastics is on the rise, the average decomposition lifecycle for plastics is 450 years.

Single-use plastics—drinking straws, baby diapers, disposable bottles, hotel shampoo bottles, wrappers, etc.—are among the worst offenders finding their way into oceans and landfills around the world. They are also a major barrier to achieving the goals of a circular economy.

The solutions

To tackle the massive plastic problem, public awareness campaigns, regulations, and voluntary pledge have begun to flourish.

Governments have begun to act. In Europe, eight EU member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, landfill less than 10% of their plastic waste—a remarkable achievement. However, 11 other member states still landfill more than 50%. To tackle this gap, building on the 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU adopted in January the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular economy, aimed at improving the way plastics are designed, produced and treated. As of June 1, the EU has also proposed a ban on single-use plastics, targeting 10 top offenders like plastic straws.

China, previously the world's largest importer of waste, has recently placed a ban on waste imports. This decision will not only reduce waste in China, but will also force other countries to find better solutions to waste management and reduction. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has pledged that it will entertain additional measures to reduce plastic waste.

Businesses, too, have a key role to play, considering that they are a primary source of plastics pollution. Businesses are increasingly asked to disclose information on materials usage, waste, and their end-of-life practices—an expectation that is likely to increase. They have also come under the scrutiny of watchdogs such as Greenpeace and growing consumer demand for action.

Companies are responding. Apple, Dell, Electrolux, Hewlett-Packard, Indesit, LG Electronics, Meiji, Nestlé, Samsung Electronics, and Sony are all making good progress on their disclosures and on reducing the impact of plastics used.

For example:

  • Apple produces an environmental footprint for each of its products
  • Hewlett-Packard publishes the weight of materials used in PC and printer manufacturing, including plastic, normalized by revenue to measure performance
  • Nestlé—which announced this year that it will achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025—reports on both the quantity of packaging used and the quantity of recycled content
  • Dunkin’ Donuts is deploying an alternative to its polystyrene cups after many years of research and consumer pressure. By the end of 2020, the company plans to eliminate foam cups entirely.
  • Walmart, a long-standing leader on sustainability, has achieved a 35% reduction in plastic bags distributed since 2007 and has the ambition to be packaging neutral by 2025

Companies are using clever means to manage plastic, including increasing the use of recycled or bio-based content, using alternatives to plastic, eliminating hazardous substances from plastics production, lightweighting, recovering materials and running buy-back and repair programs (like Schneider Electric’s EcoFit), and participating in e-waste regimes. Really innovative leaders like Oman-based polymer manufacture OCTAL are investing in and completely redesigning production processes to reduce energy consumption and waste generation in virgin plastics production. And with the support of Unilever and Waitrose, the UK is launching a multi-million dollar plastics innovation hub to develop new solutions for managing plastic waste.

What your company can do

Care about reducing plastic pollution, but not sure where to start? This World Environment Day is a great time to make a commitment to begin.

  1. The first step is to take a baseline of your existing plastic waste consumption and diversion rates to know where you need to implement changes. Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxture™ Resource Advisor software can help.
  2. Set targets for reducing plastic consumption or increasing plastic recycling. These should be based on a realistic assumption of your business as well as sound science for plastics reduction. Any goals also need to be complemented by a change management program to help employees adjust their practices accordingly.
  3. If you’re not already, disclosing and reporting your plastics use is a good best practice. This can be accomplished via existing sustainability reports or through new initiatives, which may be specific to your geography.
  4. A leading step is to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100) and commit to more radical steps in redesigning how you operate to reduce waste.

Need more help getting started on your plastic reduction journey? The sustainability consulting practice at Schneider Electric’s Energy & Sustainability Services is a leader in working with companies to improve their environmental performance. Contact us today.