This article was originally published on the Sustainable Plastics Blog on 18th July, 2022.
Plastic offsetting is a way for individuals or organizations to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the natural environment by compensating for their plastic use. Companies that fully offset their ‘plastic footprint’ must accurately measure the plastic used in their products and packaging, and balance this by funding the removal and recovery of at least as much nature-bound plastic waste.
Of course, it is critical that organizations do not see offsetting as an alternative to making reductions to plastic footprints. In fact, as you will read shortly, funding plastic recovery is a powerful action that can be done by anyone seeking to take action on plastic. Nevertheless, plastic offsets might be more appealing to organizations striving for net zero plastic goals and reaching a point where – at least in the short term – some plastic use is still deemed necessary. In these cases, plastic offsetting provides an immediate solution while longer-term reduction goals are underway.
The need for plastic offsetting is clear. We are currently living in a plastic waste epidemic. Globally, 460 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year – a number that is projected to triple by 2040 if left unchecked. Current plastic waste quantities are already unmanageable, even in the world’s richest nations, and of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste generated over the past 70 years or so, only 9% has been recycled. Much of the remainder has been landfilled or incinerated – or worse: it is dumped and left to pollute precious ecosystems on land and in our oceans. Plastic offsetting as a channel to increase the recovery of nature-bound waste has never been more needed.
How do companies offset?
Plastic offsets were pioneered by rePurpose Global through their creation of ‘plastic credits’, and several other organizations, including Plastic Bank, and Plastic Collective, now also offer offsetting services.
These same organizations provide certifications so that consumers are made aware of the action being taken. For example, one option for a company would be to use plastic offsetting to balance their plastic footprint and ‘go plastic neutral’. This typically follows three steps.
1 - Measure: an assessment tool is used to calculate plastic footprints. Fundamentally, the tool will calculate the weight of plastic used in products and multiply this by the volume of sales. More complex methodologies are being developed and used to consider plastic use up and down the supply chain.
2 - Reduce: leading organizations will only certify businesses as plastic neutral if they can demonstrate their commitment to reducing plastic use. This will vary between providers, but certain guidelines are likely to be in place to ensure these are genuine commitments to plastic waste reduction. These are designed to avoid plastic neutral certifications being seen as a license to continue polluting and contributing to the plastic waste epidemic.
3 - Recover: the third and final step is to fund plastic recovery from nature. Offsetting should mean that plastic that would not have been collected without the intervention is collected and recovered (known as ‘additionality’). Impact projects have been set up to achieve this, primarily in areas of the world where waste is severely mismanaged. Plastic credits channel finance towards the development of plastic collection, recovery, and recycling infrastructure in these projects. Plastic credits also incentivize the recovery of low-value plastics by giving them a market value.
These three steps allow organizations to balance their plastic footprint. But being certified ‘Plastic Neutral’ is just one reason why a business might finance plastic recovery. Companies might look at offsetting as a way to get ahead of regulations or meet compliance, sustainable development, or CSR goals.
Burt’s Bees provide another example. They partner with rePurpose Global to support projects in Ghana and India, on top of already-considerable plastic reduction and recovery efforts. Matt Kopac from Burt’s Bees explained in a recent blog post that – in addition to sustainability motivations – there is a humanitarian objective to their plastic waste collection, as “brands like Burt’s Bees can contribute meaningfully to the health and livelihoods of people around the world.” Impact projects have the power to support communities beyond environmental clean-up, by providing fairer incomes, safer and more dignified work, and more opportunities for waste workers.
What are the benefits and challenges of plastic offsetting?
This human impact is one of the more overlooked benefits of plastic offsetting. Without impact projects, increasing amounts of waste plastic can lead to ill-health, unsightly living conditions, and even flooding. All the while, millions of waste workers on the front lines work in hazardous conditions for very little pay. Those financing action on plastic are playing their part in changing this story to one of increasing cleanliness, hope and opportunity.
Plastic recovery through offsetting can also reverse some of the environmental consequences of the plastic waste crisis, such as the entanglement of marine animals, and the amount of microplastics entering our bodies via the food we eat.
An advantage that plastic offsetting has over carbon offsetting is that the collection and recovery of plastic is tangible. Though projects will still need to robustly calculate baseline scenarios in order to prove additional impact, and verify each unit collected according to agreed protocols, the recovery of plastic is far more measurable than CO2 sequestration.
Unlike carbon offsetting, however, agreed industry standards for plastic are still under development, and companies use different methods to measure and verify impact. rePurpose Global are working with others to develop standards, has openly shared its own Impact Code and Plastic Credit Protocol to drive standards in the industry, and was a co-developer of Verra's Plastic Waste Reduction Standard.
A further challenge with plastic offsetting is that ‘offsetting’ has become a loaded word, and is often interpreted as an absence of responsibility or long-term, sustainable thinking. Shouldn’t we be focused on reducing plastic use, not offsetting? Clearly, reduction efforts, product redesign, packaging innovations, and increased circularity are also critical components of a transition to a more sustainable future. rePurpose Global offers a reduction consultancy service to empower brands to make these changes. On top of that, its Plastic Neutral and Plastic Negative certifications are only open to brands who show their commitment to reducing plastic footprints.
However, as we have seen, millions of metric tons of plastic are already polluting the natural environment, and millions more are on their way to join them. Funding the collection and recovery of this legacy of plastic waste remains an important piece of the puzzle: we need the cure now, as well as future prevention.
Plastic offsetting can be part of the solution
As we have seen, plastic offsetting can be much more than a transition tool for brands on their journeys to net zero plastic. Plastic offsetting can empower brands to take immediate and measurable action on plastic waste, while supporting vulnerable and marginalized communities around the world.
When we see oceans full of plastic it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the mammoth scale of the task ahead. Plastic offsetting is one part of the solution, and one that must not be neglected. Brands that adopt plastic recovery activities hand in hand with reductions in plastic use and further material and circularity innovations, are contributing holistically to change for the better.
For brands wanting to know more about plastic offsetting and other ways to take action on plastic, click here.