This article was originally published on the Sustainable Brands Blog in July, 2022.
Plastic neutrality is achieved when an individual or organization’s plastic footprint is measured and balanced by the removal and recovery of plastic waste from nature, and complemented by reductions in plastic use.
The state of being plastic neutral means having a net-zero plastic footprint, for a defined period of time. This should be achieved through ambitious commitments and progress on reducing virgin plastic use — reducing the size of a plastic footprint as far as possible. Any remaining plastic use can be balanced through the funding of plastic-recovery projects. This contributes to the widely held goal of ending plastic pollution in nature.
Inspired by carbon credits and carbon neutrality, the market for plastic credits is emerging to support organizations to go plastic neutral. Plastic credits contribute to the reduction of plastic pollution by financing infrastructure where it is most needed; incentivizing the collection of plastic waste that would otherwise have been left to pollute the environment; and driving a circular economy by increasing recovery and recycling rates of various plastics. They have therefore gained currency in sustainability circles in the last year or so as a leading circular economy innovation.
Who can go plastic neutral?
Anyone can go plastic neutral. An individual could fund plastic recovery to neutralize their personal footprint for a period of time. A workplace or entire organization could do the same — albeit probably with more sophisticated footprinting efforts required. Even a one-off event’s footprint can be calculated and balanced by funding plastic recovery.
With that said, plastic neutrality is most associated with brands or consumer products. Uptake of the concept is spreading rapidly amongst challenger brands in North America and Europe, with Plastic Neutral and similar certifications already visible on thousands of products around the world. Plastic neutrality is being embraced as a way of taking action on plastic by brands across sectors including beauty and cosmetics, food and beverage, pet care, and retail.
A key driver of the decision to go plastic neutral is that brands are increasingly conscious of their responsibility to the planet. Pley Beauty™, a clean beauty line that launched this year, is an example of this. As Pley founder Peyton List explained: "We took every step possible to first reduce plastic from our brand; and nearly all of Pley Beauty™ packaging is made from recycled materials. We wanted to ensure we were doing as much as possible to help the environment.”
Another reason for choosing to go plastic neutral is that brands are increasingly under pressure from customers to increase sustainability. Driven by public demand, taking plastic action has risen to the top of the agenda — joining other issues such as meeting net-zero carbon targets. Going plastic neutral means brands can take immediate responsibility for their footprint and show consumers they are taking action.
Indeed, plastic neutrality may be particularly appealing to environmentally aware brands that have not found satisfactory alternatives to plastic packaging. This is part of the reason why sectors such as personal care and food and beverage are well-represented amongst plastic-neutral brands, as alternative (non-plastic) packaging for products containing liquids or moisture are often not yet deemed viable.
People, brands or products that go plastic neutral incentivize the collection and recovery of nature-bound plastic. Plastic credit finance also goes towards the development of plastic recovery and recycling infrastructure. Numerous projects have been set up or scaled up around the world to collect and recover nature-bound (particularly ocean-bound) plastic, and these projects provide an economic lifeline to waste workers.
Furthermore, plastic neutrality is driving a circular economy by increasing the recovery and recycling rates of various plastics. Efforts by businesses to make more sustainable choices and regulations such as the UK Plastic Packaging Tax have resulted in an increased demand for recycled plastic. Supply, on the other hand, continues to be constrained by poor recycling rates and lack of recycling infrastructure. Development of infrastructure and increased recycling of plastic waste on behalf of plastic-neutral brands is therefore supporting the transition towards circularity.
So, how can we go plastic neutral?
There are three steps required for brands (or individuals) going Plastic Neutral:
- Measure your plastic footprint.
- Reduce plastic use, and commit to further reductions.
- Balance your plastic footprint by funding action that recovers as much additional plastic as is being used.
A number of organizations — including rePurpose Global, Plastic Collective and Plastic Bank — are offering ‘Plastic Neutral’ (and ‘Plastic Negative’) certifications. Many of the same organizations do this alongside running plastic collection and recovery operations in parts of the world where plastic waste is most at risk of polluting the environment or leaking into oceans.
Let’s see what these three core elements look like for a brand seeking plastic-neutral certification:
The first step is to establish an accurate plastic footprint. Leading certifying organizations will have an easy-to-use, proprietary assessment tool to calculate plastic footprints. They may also provide expert support to make this process easier for brands.
The footprint calculation usually includes measurement of plastic used in products and packaging, as well as any other plastics used downstream of the manufacturing process. For a brand to be plastic neutral, plastic from the company’s own operations and workplace-related plastic are also included.
Leading providers are currently developing methodologies to calculate other plastic waste that falls outside of this scope (for example, plastics used downstream in distribution processes) where there are parallels with Scope 3 carbon emissions.
With the plastic footprint assessment complete, the brand is supported to make commitments to plastic waste reduction — if they have not done so already — such as plastic-reduction strategies, sourcing alternative materials and maximizing circularity.
Environmentally driven certifying organizations will only certify companies as plastic neutral if they are committed to making, tracking and achieving plastic-reduction commitments. Clear and ambitious reduction commitments are important to avoid plastic-neutral certifications being perceived as a license to continue polluting.
The brand funds the removal and recovery of ‘additional’ plastic waste from nature — to balance their plastic footprint. Plastic waste collection and recovery projects are usually located in plastic waste ‘hotspots’ in places such as India, Indonesia, The Philippines, Ghana and Kenya.
The collected waste is then processed, and the leading providers in the market will ensure that each material goes to the best circular or end-of-life destination. For example, rePurpose Global’s publicly available Plastic Credit Protocol ensures that anything collected from its impact projects that can be recycled will be recycled — with all other waste taken to the most environmentally sustainable end-of-life destination available.
Plastic neutrality is one part of the solution
It is clear that reductions in plastic manufacturing and use are central to creating a world free from plastic pollution. Like carbon neutrality, plastic neutrality must be paired with reduction commitments in order to tackle the crisis holistically. Simultaneously, we need to keep funding innovative substitutes for plastics, expand waste-collection infrastructure, improve recycling practices, and ensure that disposal facilities prevent plastic leakage.
Nevertheless, plastic neutrality has shown its potential to be far more than just a band-aid. Plastic neutrality, when done well, can fund critical infrastructure and action that cleans up plastic waste and reduces pollution of natural ecosystems. It can help to drive a circular economy and create dignified work and income streams for thousands of waste workers.
For brands that care about their impact on the planet, plastic neutrality therefore provides an opportunity to contribute to these solutions — and, ultimately, the reduction of plastic waste in nature — while also providing an immediate way to take responsibility for the plastic they are using.
If this article has inspired you to pursue plastic neutrality for your brand, read more here