How to Achieve over US$3.5bn in Environmental Savings Annually from Scaling up Two Sustainable Plastic Programmes

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Last week’s Plasticity Forum in Shanghai brought together over 20 global experts to speak about plastic sustainability, and the opportunities that can be created from reducing our collective waste footprint.  In a world-first study on the Net Benefit Analysis of making certain sustainability decisions, Trucost has quantified the environmental benefits of industry-wide expansion of sustainable plastic initiatives that Dell’s recycled plastic and Algix’s bioplastic have introduced into the market.

If companies in the computer industry, along with users of bioplastics from Algix were to scale across these sectors, the value to our communities and the environment would be more than US$3.5 billion per year.  This new calculation of environmental savings can give business leaders and policymakers that chance to make needed, long-term decisions on sustainability, which had previously been driving by direct cost comparison on products or materials.  Without taking the positive externalities into account, environmental decisions have previously been made with short term gains in mind, leaving both the positive and negative externalities to be “managed’ by the general public who are the recipients of externalised or non-existent cost and value assumptions.  This has been the shortcoming of the rapid adoption of environmental technologies and solutions, particularly in Asia, where managers, and the short-term quest for growth and margins at all costs, have left our air, water and communities with a tough recovery challenge (and cost), to be dealt with by our current generation.

The Trucost paper Scaling Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics towards a Circular Economy changes the paradigm in how to calculate the value of using new materials and solutions which may seem to cost more at the beginning, but which can actually drive long term sustainability for the company and the communities it serves.

Innovations to achieve a more circular economy such as closed loop recycling, plant-based plastic and biodegradable polymers offer ways to reduce the environmental cost of conventional, fossil fuel-based plastic. But so far, few companies are pioneering these new processes and technologies.

For example, Dell’s OptiPlex 3030 computer is produced using recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment from its own take-back scheme. Trucost’s environmental benefit analysis identifies environmental cost savings to society of $700 million per year if the entire computer manufacturing industry switched to closed-loop recycled plastic.

Algix makes a low-carbon polymer called Solaplast from algae. Trucost demonstrates that if the footwear sector switched to Solaplast, it could reduce its environmental cost by $1.5 billion per year. If the soft drinks sector used the algae-based plastic, it could deliver benefits to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Trucost’s report identifies the barriers that are preventing business sectors from scaling up the use of sustainable plastic, and recommends solutions to overcome them. First and foremost is that waste plastic is undervalued in our economy. This is because the market does not price in environmental costs such as climate change and human health impacts from petrochemical plastic production, or the damage done to the marine environment, tourism, water quality and health, caused by plastic waste.

The solution is for policymakers to correctly value plastic, providing an incentive for companies and consumers to recycle it into new products and reduce the need for virgin polymers. It would also encourage the switch to plant-based and biodegradable-plastic where appropriate. Businesses can benefit from this shift to a circular economy by acting now to understand the risks and opportunities it presents. By valuing the environmental costs and benefits of plastic use, companies are in a better position to take informed decisions, and can better understand the business case for investment.

Managing the plastic ecosystem through recycling, reuse and closed-loop methods can create jobs, save money, improve brand value and create supply-chain efficiency.  The “benefits” are there for the taking, but it is now up to companies, big or small, to understand that the old way of externalising benefits (or not even knowing they are there), is poor optimisation of a company’s potential.