Nothing is more symbolic of all that is wrong with our throwaway society than plastic pollution. Often used for just a few minutes, plastic bags, bottles and healthcare products end up in landfill sites where the valuable materials and energy resources they contain are wasted. Worse still, in some parts of the world, plastic is simply dumped and ends up in rivers and the ocean.
We have put a cost on the environmental impact of plastic through research we did for the Plastic Disclosure Project. We calculate that plastic costs the planet a colossal $75bn costs per year in the consumer goods sector alone, due mainly to the carbon emissions from plastic manufacturing processes. Oceanic pollution accounts for $13bn as a result of impacts such as the harm done to marine wildlife by discarded nylon fishing nets and ingesting microscopic plastic particles.
The findings really seem to have sparked debate in the global media. Around 80 news articles were written about the research after it was published, and those were just the ones in English. There were more than 50 articles published in China. This is in no small part due to the fantastic support of the UN Environment Programme which published the research at its recent conference in Nairobi.
The research was a massive undertaking as few companies publish data on plastic. Where they did, we used the information, but otherwise the research involved painstaking modelling of plastic consumption in 16 consumer goods sectors. We focused on consumer goods because it comprises industries like toy manufacturing, household goods, and food and soft drinks companies, which use lots of plastic in their products and packaging, and therefore have most to win or lose.
The aim of the research is very much to raise companies’ awareness of the risks and opportunities of plastic. The main risk comes from failing to anticipate tighter regulation of plastic, which could mean companies are forced to pay some or all of the natural capital costs of the plastic they use. Opportunities spring from rethinking product design and manufacturing processes to enable the reuse and recycling of plastic. Good plastics management, especially in the food and soft drinks sector, is already saving some $4bn per year, and this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Companies should seize the opportunities now. The work of ten companies including Puma, Aveda and Shaw with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute points the way forward. The efforts these firms are making to create more sustainable products are paying off for the companies in terms of reduced costs, improved product value and new revenue streams, as well as for the environment. The latest research contains case studies on good management of plastic by companies such as Interface, Lush and Coca Cola.