HT Column City of Commerce: If you measure it, you can manage it – the plastic disclosure project

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Secretary of Environment Wong Kam-sing launched Hong Kong’s waste management blueprint. Is ‘burn, baby, burn’ the answer? In June, Hong Kong will become the global stage for examining solutions to one of our most vexing waste issues: plastic.


As economies or populations grow, so too does consumption. In most countries, the waste that is generated has outpaced the waste management and recycling infrastructure. This is exactly what is happening today in Hong Kong. Sadly, the end result is polluted communities and ecosystems. According to an estimate by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 80% of the plastic and waste that ends up in our ocean comes from land.

This is a problem that we all can solve, however, if we actually put our minds to it – without a lot of pain in lifestyle changes along the way.

The Hong Kong government announced its plans this week to ramp up recycling to Seoul and Taipei levels. Secretary for the Environment KS Wong: “Hong Kong needs to create a culture that promotes waste reduction and recycling.”

Questions remain about how this will be achieved. However, solutions Hong Kong can use are out there – and they are coming to us.

Perplexing Plastic

When looking at our waste footprints, in actuality, almost everything can be recycled, if we have it sorted into feedstock streams ( collections of properly separated materials ready for processing) that are pure enough for re-use. The problem with our waste streams today is the separation: not being “wet and dry” means that organics and wet material make it hard to recover material in their clean feedstock streams. At the same time, the many versions, colors and melting points of plastic, when mixed with wet material, make it expensive to clean and sort according to its type. Plastic makes up almost 19% of Hong Kong’s landfill waste by weight, and given its light weight, you can imagine the actual volume of material that this represents. If we can start thinking of plastic in a different way, as a resource, we can then potentially solve some of our other waste problems as well, segregating the wet/food waste along the way for better processing.

Plastic has many great uses, due to its light weight, flexibility in molding, and durability. Yet these are also its downfalls, particularly because it is difficult to create economies of scale for the many varieties of plastic that exist. In the US alone, estimates are that over US$8bn per year is “left on the table” in the form of packaging waste alone, which does not get recycled.Estimates are that in the US alone, over $8bn per year is “left on the table” from packaging waste alone which does not get recycled.

Plastic Management – The New Gold?

Roughly 85% of the plastic used in products and packaging is not recycled, and this is a large, global opportunity – an opportunity for cleaning our country sides and waterways, while creating jobs and innovation. For brands that can manage their resources well, this offers an excellent opportunity for enhanced community and employee engagement, spurring the potential for new design, processes, and reverse-supply chain programs which actually help bring customers back in the door. For municipalities and governments, this can lead to cost savings on waste management, job creation, and the innovations that so many strive to attract.

One way a new focus can be brought to the table, is a similar way of thinking and reporting to that of carbon disclosure. Today, many companies know what their carbon and water footprints are. but in a growing world of waste generation, most don’t know what their plastic footprint is. This is important to know, because if you can measure it, then you can manage it better, and plastic has the unfortunate quality of being a material that does not go away on its own. The Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) is a global program that was created by the Ocean Recovery Alliance to take advantage of this opportunity.

Disclosing for Dollars

Announced at the Clinton Global Initiative in (2010), the goal of the program is to focus the business community’s attention on plastic as a waste stream that can be turned into a resource revenue stream The other benefits include all of the societal and governmental benefits of reduced pollution, cleaning, collection and waste infrastructure needs. Participants include companies and other institutions (universities, airports, stadiums, municipalities) that measure their plastic footprint by tracking plastic use and waste creation every year. The procedures are similar to, but less complex than, procedures established for carbon emissions.

Once businesses and communities understand what their waste streams are vis-à-vis plastic, they can focus on what solutions can be deployed. Here are some examples:

*reducing waste in the supply chain (do we really need to shrink wrap everything coming from a factory , simply to be sent to another warehouse?);

* increasing recycling in the factory, office or institution where people aggregate;

* Increasing recycling within the community of users. Can strong bring-back programs be created to engage customers, bring them back through the door, and/or make use of reverse-supply chain capacity? Most likely yes.

* increasing recycling and biodegradable content in products.

* Aggregation of waste materials via companies and government departments in the community who have similar waste streams, so that economies of scale can be created

* Use of new plastic-to-fuel technology which can create low sulfur fuel, for use with the remaining material that is not readily recycled.

The management of “secondary raw material” drives solutions which cut across many needs of communities today, all of which have economic impacts as a result of improvements in factors such as water quality, tourism, ecosystems, public health, agriculture and resource management. The PDP offers guidance on developing plastic management strategies to create a world where plastic adds value to businesses without negatively impacting the environment. There is no reason governments couldn’t also harness those benefits.

Legalese Free

The beauty of this program is that it requires no laws or legislative changes, and relies on a wide range of stakeholder groups who can use this program as a tool within their communities to reduce waste and increase the material’s re-use, in a large scale manner. Government doesn’t need to mandate, but can lead through example.

One of the stakeholder groups is the socially responsible investment management community, who increasingly ask for transparent material use and environmental impact. Similarly, for the more than 3,000 companies that annually complete the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reports, the PDP offers an excellent way to properly understand much of the waste profile which is asked of them. Because plastic has a very high consumer and community touch point, often with direct brand association, this offers an incredible opportunity for brands to become involved in truly solving a problem that impacts much of the world today – pollution.

UNEP’s new Partnership on Marine Litter sees the PDP as a pillar program in their effort to reduce marine pollution because it can cut across borders and be used by all types of businesses, in all communities. The goal is to create an international mindset-change in the way we think of plastic as an easily thrown away material, and instead inspire its efficient use within a “closed-loop” system” which leads to innovation and job creation, while reducing its impact on the environment. The World Bank’s Global Partnership on Oceans sees the same benefit from the PDP, as all members of the business community, combined with municipality needs, can use this program to bring about positive change which should also bring benefits to the societies in which they operate.

Despite its short two year existence, and the relatively limited exposure that PDP has to date on a global scale, companies in at least a dozen countries have already expressed interest in the project. Hong Kong could be next.

Lush Cosmetics in the UK was the first to report. Though they pride themselves on being ahead of the industry on environmental issues, even they learned some lessons and thought about new ways to work with the local municipality on improving the community’s recycling capacity. Of course, some companies may think this is difficult to undertake, but its framework is actually not overly complex. The value in learning more about the metrics, however, can be invaluable for better management decisions for resource optimization. Because plastic is used by almost every industry in every country, PDP does not suggest that plastic not be used, but simply that it is utilized in a more efficient manner, with similar thought and care that is taken with carbon, water or other materials that are limited or can cause negative environmental impacts.

Plasticity City

Hong Kong needs to learn and it will have its chance in June. The city secured the hosting rights of the Plasticity Forum conference after last year’s launch at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.This was the first time that plastic was elevated to a high level of discussion at one of the large multinational environmental events.

It may be a business event, but government officials including Christine Loh will be prominent in Hong Kong. With 137,000 employees, the government could well implement these processes and showcase them for business. Other industry leaders will be showcased and thousands of professionals will come to learn

Keeping Plastic in its Place

When the Carbon Disclosure Project was announced, companies feared the increased transparency to the outside world, and the complexity in understanding what their carbon footprint might be. Today, companies are proud to announce their carbon footprint metrics, as they have found cost savings and efficiencies along the way which make them better at what they do. Becoming involved in the PDP and undergoing an annual plastic footprint analysis will have the same effect – a benefit to the companies and institutions who measure and manage their plastic use, with a long lasting positive impact on our environment for generations to come.

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was told that the future of the world was in plastic. Today, that still holds true, but the future is in the proper management and re-use of plastic, so that none of it ends up in our ecosystem. Those who can work with the large inventory of plastic that we have already created in the previous decades, and which still exists, will be the new winners in this quest for brand recognition, and communal improvement.

Doug Woodring is the founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance (www.oceanrecov.org) and a co-founder of the Plastic Disclosure Project (www.plasticdisclosure.org).

Plasticity Forum: The event will be on June 6th, 2013, at the Asia Society, with the Economist World Oceans Summit as one of the partners, and endorsement from the World Bank’s GPO, and UNEP. (www.plasticityforum.com)

Introductory Video – http://bit.ly/PDPvideo (4min+)