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The New ‘Plastics and Sustainability’ Report: Greenwash or Wake-Up Call?

By 3p Contributor

By Doug Woodring and Marcus Eriksen

Last month, Jacquelyn Ottman penned a topical article on TriplePundit in response the recent report by Trucost and the American Chemistry Council, called “Plastics and Sustainability.” And she brought up some good questions relating to this growing, challenging issue of plastic pollution.

As the initiator of the report with Trucost -- which we created for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2014, “Valuing Plastic: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry” -- we feel it fitting to contribute some comments to this discussion.

There is no disputing that plastic has brought positive benefits to our economy, such as in electronics, hospitals and safety equipment, as well as some environmental savings in transportation (energy) and resource replacement. The single-use, throw-away application of so many plastic products, however, resulted in problems related to environmental pollution, ecotoxicity and social justice.

These issues should be the overriding message and warning call to our communities from this report. These are the unintended consequences of replacing materials like glass, metals and paper for plastic alternatives. Its relative low cost of production, light weight, durability and ease of use by virtually all sectors suggests that plastic production may continue to increase with population growth and a growing global middle class. It is not likely that we will go “back in time” in order to re-initiate the use of wood, paper, glass and metals as widely as they were used in the past, simply because our natural resources cannot sustain such demand.

But the use of plastic in many applications that contribute to the waste stream could be replaced by biological or inert materials. Source reduction in some sectors is also essential.

Plastic’s durability is its asset for the initial purpose of use, but it is also the material’s downfall in its “afterlife” due to the long-term liability it creates if the material is not recycled or recovered for alternative use. And thus our challenge. How do we harness the benefits, but eliminate the ecological and community-related stresses that plastic pollution creates? How do we shift from a linear economy to a circular economic model?

This recent report should be a wake-up call to all of us that we must change the perception of waste as a burden, to that of one where it is sought after as a continued resource by implementing end-of-life design thinking.  We need significantly more funding for innovative materials and product/packaging design, leadership (corporate and government), new business models, and maybe most importantly, the acceptance of internalizing costs at the front end of the material’s use.

While the total costs to the environment and communities caused by plastic pollution are difficult to measure, we should not worry over the exact numbers, for if something is not natural to the environment in the first place, it should not be there.  If communities are awash in unrecyclable waste, then there’s a leak in the system that must be closed, and systems must be reinvented.

Studies are not needed to quantify, qualify or justify the existence of “some” plastic pollution in the name of growing economies and “convenient” lifestyles. Creating an “acceptable tolerance for waste” is unacceptable. France recently became a leader in this enlightened thinking, calling for a ban on disposable plastic foodware by 2020. It's the first country to do so across the board.

The challenge now is bringing the vast number of stakeholders from industry, government and the community to attack the issues of plastic pollution and waste in the same way that we have started to come to terms with climate change. Plastic pollution impacts people on a daily basis in many ways, and is much more tangible to solve, since it is something that we can all see, touch and feel. Given that almost all plastic waste has been touched by a human hand, this should be a problem that we can collectively solve.

Note:  The Plasticity Forum in London this week on September 21st as part of the London Design Festival is an example of cross collaboration by industry experts to be sharing solutions that can and should be scales to reduce our looming waste crisis.

Doug Woodring is co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance/Plasticity Forum.

Dr. Marcus Erikson is co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute.

About Ocean Recovery AllianceOcean Recovery Alliance is an NGO that brings together new ways of thinking, technologies, creativity and collaborations in order to introduce innovative projects and initiatives that help to improve our ocean environment.  One of its programs is the Plasticity Forum, while it also has two projects with the Clinton Global Initiative focused on the reduction of plastic pollution, and is one of the only NGOs in the world to be working with both the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans.

About 5 Gyres Institute: 5 Gyres undertakes transoceanic research expeditions, education projects and campaignes to understand the ecological impacts of plastic marine pollution.  5 Gyres Institute is the first organization to investigate the impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment globally, primarily documenting the presence of accumulation zones in the five subtropical gyres.

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