A Mound Of Confusion: Can plastic credits have the same impact as carbon credits?

A Mound Of Confusion: Can plastic credits have the same impact as carbon credits?

By: Valerie Hawks (Head of Sustainability, Interact Brands) & Nicole Sullivan (Director of Climate Services, CarbonBetter)

Our climate crisis is heavily fueled (pun intended) by a carbon problem and a plastic problem. We overproduce carbon and we overproduce plastic. Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled and on average, only 14% is recycled today.There are five patches of plastic floating around the world's oceans, and by 2050 oceans will carry more plastic mass than fish. Whew! That’s a lot to take in and those numbers make our problem with plastic glaringly obvious.

42% of plastic created today is designed for packaging. Many brands in the food and beverage industry have to use plastic for a myriad of valid reasons. How can direct contributors to the plastic waste problem help to solve it? Producer responsibility regulations may force a shift in some areas, but brands wanting to take their own initiative can look to purchasing plastic credits. Similar to carbon credits purchased to offset carbon emissions, plastic credits can be purchased to offset a brand’s overall plastic footprint. But unlike the increasingly rigorous voluntary market for carbon credits, with requirements for 3rd party verification and traceable carbon accounting, the plastic credit market is a far less structured system to date.

Plastic is a physical object that we can see. Unlike the universal nature of the earth's carbon problem and its effects on climate change, the problem of plastic pollution is visible and localized. While the planet operates with a global carbon budget, the island of plastic garbage in the ocean or the mounds of it in developing countries aren’t visible to a vast majority of us. When a carbon credit is purchased, it helps the entire planet's carbon allotment. When a plastic credit is purchased, who or what is it helping? 

To start, let’s dig into what a plastic credit actually is and how they work to benefit businesses, individuals, and ultimately our planet.

What is a plastic credit?

As a business owner or individual, you might be concerned with a spectrum of ways that you impact the environment on a daily basis including carbon emissions, water consumption, and waste. To be able to address and reduce your environmental impacts, the first step is to quantify them. Once you know how much carbon you release into the atmosphere or how much waste you generate, you can assess options for directly reducing your impacts. In some cases, you may not have control over where your waste streams go. The options to reduce carbon directly may require large capital investments to implement projects such as fuel switching or the purchase of new equipment. In cases where directly reducing your environmental impacts is unattainable with current budgets and technology, you may explore ways to indirectly reduce them.

This is where credits come in. You may already be familiar with carbon offset credits and the carbon market - carbon offsetting is a powerful tool in the transition to a net-zero future when used in conjunction with holistic efforts to measure, report, and reduce carbon emissions. Carbon offset projects are activities that compensate, or offset, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or other greenhouse gasses (GHGs) by providing an emission reduction. Each carbon credit represents one metric ton of CO2 (or its equivalent greenhouse gas [CO2e]) that is reduced, sequestered or avoided, and it has a monetary market value. Carbon credits are issued by registries and their issuance requires a 3rd party verification. Carbon credits can be utilized to reach “carbon neutral” or net zero emissions, and the purchase of the credits invests in decarbonization activities like reforestation, renewable energy, carbon capture, and agroforestry.

Plastic credits are an emerging tool that work quite similarly to carbon credits to indirectly address plastic waste generated by businesses and individuals. As there are multiple registries and bodies developing and issuing plastics credits, there is not a standard unit that one plastic credit represents. For Ocean Bound Plastics (OBP) Credits, a plastic credit represents 1 kilogram (kg) of low value plastic that has been removed and treated or recycled. On the Verra registry, under the Plastic Waste Reduction Program, each credit represents one metric ton of plastic waste that would otherwise have not been collected or recycled. For plastic neutral certification through RePurpose Global, a plastic credit represents 1 kg of plastic waste collected and processed at an appropriate end of life in the region - in low income countries, 90% of this waste is openly dumped or burned.

In the carbon market “additionality” means the reductions or removals achieved by a project need to be 'additional' to what would have happened in a business as usual state if the project had not been carried out. I.e. the credits are actually helping to create a project. Based on a preliminary review of some plastics projects, the concept of additionality seems to be lacking. It appears that credits are being issued for projects that were going to happen business as usual. Ensuring the quality of plastics credits and the projects they are funding will be an important consideration for buyers as the market takes shape.

Plastic credits are a tool for offsetting plastic waste impacts when direct reductions of waste streams and the use of alternative materials is not an option. These credits can be used to reduce plastic waste by a percentage or the whole. In cases where all of your plastic waste is offset, you can become plastic neutral. While plastic credits balance out an individual or brands  generated waste, they also invest in building new waste management infrastructure, including collection networks, sorting facilities, and recycling. When these projects are verified, plastic offsetting is doing a lot of good.

Where do plastic credits come from? 

Similar to registries in the carbon market, new registries and protocols for developing and issuing plastic credits have emerged. Plastics registries have differing requirements and each credit may represent different things. It’s important to choose the plastic credit that best meets your needs for the impact you are hoping to achieve to reduce your waste impacts. The table below summarizes the main plastic credit issuing bodies, what their credits represent, and any corresponding certification programs that are offered.

What good do they do? 

While certain types of plastic credits may be targeted at clean up of ocean bound plastics or removal of hard to recycle plastic from coastlines, plastic credits are ultimately a tool for offsetting any form of plastic waste that may have otherwise ended up in the natural environment or in landfills. Depending on the specific type of plastic waste you are trying to offset, you may be able to identify plastic offset projects that are operating in the same region as your plastic waste or that are improving waste recovery and recycling infrastructure for your material type. It is important to choose projects that are impactful and that would not have happened in a business as usual state. The concept of reaching plastic neutral is similar to carbon neutral. To reach plastic neutral, you must quantify your plastic waste, as well as the amount of plastic credits that you are utilizing to offset your waste. If waste minus plastic credits that you retire equals zero, then you have achieved plastic neutral. You don’t have to reach plastic neutral to make an impact, even reducing plastic waste by a small percentage can make a difference. While plastic credits are a tool, they should not be a replacement for making progress towards direct waste reductions.

Are plastic credits right for you? 

Plastic credits are a tool for businesses, particularly manufacturing businesses that make products that generate plastic waste, brands that utilize plastic packaging, as well as individuals who have a vested interest in sustainability and the planet. There are programs, such as Empower’s Plastic Positive Program, that allow for individuals to mitigate their plastic waste through subscriptions vs direct plastic credit purchases. Plastic credits ultimately fund plastic offset projects that remove and recycle plastic and they can even be a pathway towards infrastructure improvements around the globe. Buyer beware not all plastics credits are created equal - so it’s important to understand the verification process for the different registries as well as the project types that you are investing in. 

While plastic credits are a tool in your plastic waste reduction toolkit, the first tools you should reach for involve exploring direct reduction opportunities and packaging choices as a part of a broader waste reduction strategy for businesses. 

As a business or brand embarking on a plastic reduction sustainability journey, you can look into starting with the most obvious path of utilizing alternative materials to avoid using plastic in the first place. If plastic is the best substrate for your product, consider using post consumer recycled plastic (rPET). The less virgin plastic we’re creating, the better. But if plastic waste is a direct result of your manufacturing processes, adjustments in the machining processes can make improvements to allow you to utilize more of the substrate and create less waste. Lightweighting and other optimizations to packaging can be great options to simply use less raw materials. Once all reduction and elimination options have been explored and implemented when possible, then and only then is it time to look at offsetting your plastic waste.

If we offset waste we could have eliminated, what good are the offsets doing? If the money spent on offsets is funding projects that would have happened anyways, what good are the offsets doing? Our goal in the fight against the overproduction of plastic is to lower the amount of new plastic we are creating, increase the amount of current plastic we are recycling, and to shore up our infrastructure for collection and management of plastic waste future forward. 

When we spend money on a plastic credit, we’re giving money to a project somewhere in the world that is eliminating plastic. It is imperative that we know what projects we are helping to fund. Projects that would have happened anyways are not a beneficial use of your funding. The creation of new projects - think robust, inventive, and verified - is what we want to be funding. Considering the geographical location of the project and its proximity to your waste is an added benefit.

Even if you’re not sure if plastic credits are the right direction for your brand or business just yet, the evidence is compelling that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to acknowledging the seriousness of our global plastic waste problem. Placing reduction and elimination at the forefront of this journey will move us to our destination faster, but ensuring that we’re putting our money where our waste is - maybe by way of plastic credits - will help us out along the way.

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