Sustainable plastics a $3.5 billion savings opportunity

New paper outlines environmental and financial opportunities for those companies using sustainable plastics and provides recommendations on overcoming barriers to their use.

Companies using sustainable plastic could deliver a $3.5 billion environmental savings, according to a discussion paper published by environmental data company Trucost. To achieve these benefits, business and policymakers have to massively scale up initiatives such as plastic recycling and bioplastics.

The Trucost paper, “Scaling Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics towards a Circular Economy,” identifies the actions needed by companies, governments, environmentalists, and researchers to achieve industry-wide scaling up of sustainable plastics. The paper draws on interviews with plastics and recycling experts, as well as case studies of companies that have worked with Trucost to measure the environmental benefits of initiatives, including U.S. computer giant Dell and green technology company Algix.

Says Trucost, plastic has many benefits, ranging from reducing food waste by providing packaging to cutting transport pollution due to its light weight. However, around 8% of current fossil fuel dependency is attributed to plastic production, and much of the plastic produced is used just once and then thrown away. The environmental cost to society of plastic use by the consumer goods sector alone is estimated at $75 billion, largely due to climate change and pollution impacts, in particular marine pollution.

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, according to Trucost. But so far, few companies are pioneering these new processes and technologies.

The paper outlines how Dell’s OptiPlex 3030 computer is being produced using recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment from Dell’s 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.

“There are significant benefits to embracing a circular economy,” says Scott O’Connell, Director, Environmental Affairs at Dell. “Our closed-loop plastics supply chain enables a resource-efficient product made from recycled content that costs Dell less. Companies need to realize sustainability programs are just good business.”

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 paper identifies the barriers that are preventing business sectors from scaling up 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 by plastic waste.

The solution, Trucost says, is for policymakers to correctly value plastic, which would provide 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.

The paper contains a dozen further recommendations for different stakeholders aimed at increasing access to feedstock, improving product quality, addressing financial challenges, and boosting market demand.

“Our research identifies solutions to the challenges of scaling up the market for sustainable plastic,” says Richard Mattison, Chief Executive of Trucost. “By assessing the environmental cost benefits of sustainable plastic initiatives, companies and governments can better understand the business case for investment.”

Doug Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, which supported the discussion paper, says, “Companies now realize that environmental sustainability has a positive impact not only on the communities they serve, but also on their own bottom line. Managing the plastic ecosystem through recycling, reuse, and closed-loop methods can create jobs, save money, improve brand value, and create supply-chain efficiency.”




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