How can businesses turn plastic risk into opportunity?

How can businesses turn plastic risk into opportunity?

Plastic. It’s cheap, it’s abundant, it’s everywhere. Some 288m tonnes of plastic were produced globally in 2012, yet plastics recycling rates remain low, with millions of tonnes of plastic waste entering the oceans each year. Much of it joins the ‘five gyres’, swirling vortices of trash, where it breaks down into a ‘soup’ of tiny plastic particles, harming birds and marine ecosystems, before eventually entering the food chain.

The Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) estimates that ocean plastic waste causes $13bn of environmental damage annually, creating significant natural capital risk for companies worldwide. Its new report, ‘Valuing plastic’, jointly produced by the Ocean Recovery Alliance, Trucost and UNEP, aims to inspire businesses to convert risk into opportunity by measuring and acting on their plastic footprints.

“Companies are consistently stealing a march on their competitors by anticipating customer demands for recycled plastic content or cutting plastic waste from their supply chains,” says Andrew Russell, PDP’s Director. “By quantifying the natural capital risk and highlighting the scale of the opportunity, we hope more companies will tackle plastic with the same rigour they apply to carbon emissions and other vital sustainability issues.”

The opportunities identified by the PDP report include gaining market share, attracting increased investment, improving reputation, engaging employees, lowering operational costs and avoiding fines and taxes associated with plastic waste. 

Understanding the state of play in consumer goods

‘Valuing Plastic’ sets the natural capital cost of plastic in the consumer goods sector at more than $75bn a year, with more than 30% derived from GHG emissions upstream in the supply chain. The impacts of plastic vary around the world, with companies sourcing or disposing of plastic in Asia generating the highest natural capital costs.

Food companies are by far the largest contributor, responsible for 23% of the total consumer goods natural capital cost ($18bn), followed by the soft drinks sector at 12% ($9bn). Yet despite this, the food sector is one of the least exposed in terms of revenue, with its natural capital intensity rate or ‘revenue at risk’ standing at just 0.3%. In stark contrast, the toy sector is responsible for far fewer natural capital costs (4%) but is more exposed financially, with a high natural capital intensity rate of 3.9%.

Tackling plastic in the supply chain

Managing plastic footprints starts with smart measurement techniques, according to the PDP. Supply chain teams can track a variety of indicators, including how much plastic is wasted by the business, how much plastic travels down the supply chain to the next customer, the type and recyclability of the plastic, as well as its end fate.

  • Educating and collaborating with suppliers

Collaborating with suppliers and helping them to understand plastic risk in their own business can go a long way to building an accurate picture of plastic use. PUMA, for example, is making plastic a key part of the conversation by consistently reaching back through its supply chain to understand its suppliers’ plastic footprint.

“Collaboration with suppliers can be a real catalyst for change,” says Russell. “The supplier learns more about the whole life of the product, while the customer gains a better understanding of the intricacies of the plastic supply chain.”

  • Using recycled and ‘closed loop’ plastics in new products

Producing recycled plastic uses 20% of the energy it takes to produce virgin plastic, according to plastics recycler MBA Polymers, providing a distinct opportunity to cut a product’s carbon footprint. And with the UK government mulling over plans to lower VAT on products with recycled content, buyers in the UK, at least, may soon have an added incentive to source recycled or closed loop plastic.

Technology giant Dell has recently launched the first ever computer made using ‘closed loop’ plastic. The company has linked its existing take-back programme, ‘Dell Reconnect’, which operates in 78 countries, to its manufacturing supply chain to create a closed loop and give IT industry e-waste a new lease of life. Overall, it aims to use 50m pounds of recycled plastics in its products by 2020.

“In our discussions with customers, they frequently explain that they want products that are better for the environment, but they don’t necessarily want to pay more and it cannot affect performance,” explains Scott O’Connell, Dell’s Environmental Affairs Director. “The closed loop plastics supply chain delivers exactly that.

“However, the complexities of getting [e-waste] back into the supply chain and recycling plastics at end of life are barriers for our industry. Closed loop solutions require alignment across the value chain, starting with the infrastructure for collection of electronic waste, product disassembly, sorting and purification of the plastics and ultimately manufacturing new parts containing the closed loop recycled plastics.”

  • Exploring innovations in plastic packaging

Major companies are continually exploring new ways to reduce plastic packaging. Unilever, for example, is trialling a new type of plastic that incorporates air bubbles, reducing the amount of material required by 15%, a technology it plans to share with its peers in the future.

Cosmetics company Lush became the first business to disclose its plastic footprint back in 2011 and has since made $263,000 in natural capital savings by reducing its plastic use. In particular, it has focused on redesigning liquid products into solid form, selling 3m solid shampoo bars in 2013, a 20% increase year-on-year, and removing the need for 9m plastic bottles.

“This isn’t just about reducing our plastic use, it’s about innovation,” says Annabelle Baker, General Manager at Lush Asia. “But any innovation has to be appealing to customers and it has to work. Shampoo bars are very popular in Asia, for example, where consumers have fewer recycling options.”

“Convincing suppliers to branch out and develop new products can be challenging,” adds Gabbi Loedolff, Creative Buyer for Lush. “When we took the decision to replace micro-plastic glitter with biodegradable alternatives, we worked hard to help our suppliers understand the scale of the commercial opportunity.”

Lush uses 100% post-consumer recycled plastic packaging, and is also developing closed loop systems for hard-to-recycle plastics, such as its Polypropylene (PP) ‘black pots’, transforming 5.5 tonnes of PP annually into new packaging. It also plans to create a ‘waste hub’ in Poole to process suppliers’ waste packaging on site.

Plastic innovation in the pipeline

As companies get to grips with measuring plastic risks and opportunities and managing their plastic footprints, Russell and his team are confident that current innovations among consumer brands could be just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ for future plastic creativity.

This article was originally published on the 2degrees network site.