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Sunday, July 14, 2024

6 ways to tackle the damage plastics are doing

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Plastic manufacturing is overtaking cars as the fastest-growing use of oil, according to Aarthi Ananthanarayanan, director of the Climate and Plastics Initiative at the Ocean Conservancy.

“As all other sectors transition to clean energy, by 2050 we will use more oil per person to make plastic than we use to fuel our cars,” she said, speaking at  GreenBiz’s Circularity 24 conference recently.

And with that come the inevitable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Twelve percent of global oil goes toward plastics production today, more than what’s used for global aviation. Yet plastics — 99 percent derived from oil — are largely missing from company and investor climate commitments, said Ananthanarayanan, citing an Ocean Conservancy report. What’s more, climate target-setting frameworks often omit GHG emissions from plastics and even provide counterproductive guidance, such as advising oil and gas companies that shifting to plastics production is a GHG reduction strategy because carbon is tied up in the final product. she said.

“If you’re trying to reach 2030 or 2050 targets to be net zero, you cannot do that without addressing the plastics in your portfolio,” said Anja Brandon, associate director for U.S. plastics policy, also at the Ocean Conservancy.

Here are six takeaways on how to do that:

1. Understand your suppliers’ Scope 3 emissions

Seventy-five percent of consumer goods companies’ GHG emissions from plastics are Scope 3 emissions. Their suppliers are extracting and refining fossil fuels and producing plastic resins for a company’s raw materials. And every step generates emissions that occur before they sell a final product.

Companies therefore need to look beyond their direct emissions under Scopes 1 and 2, Ananthanarayanan said. “Unless you get those upstream emissions, you’re not going to make a dent in the climate impacts of plastic.”

Emissions from plastics production vary by the fossil fuel feedstock, the chemical additives used, the facility type and location and by how much methane is released during oil and gas extraction.

For example, methanol, the starting material for polyester, is sometimes made from coal, which is “six times less efficient as a fossil fuel input to make plastic,” according to Ananthanarayanan. 

Location matters because countries with fast growth in plastic manufacturing, such as China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, use a lot of coal for energy. As a result, coal-based emissions from plastics manufacturing have risen fourfold since 1995. Likewise, the Permian oil fields in Texas have vast “fugitive” methane emissions, Ananthanarayanan said, from the uncontrolled leaks, flaring and venting that accompany oil drilling and refining.

The carbon intensity of plastic polymers varies. Polypropylene is the least carbon-intensive and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most. The former generates an average of 4.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of plastic made versus more than 6 kilograms for the latter.

“Companies should estimate their own upstream emissions by pushing their suppliers for more transparency and asking hard questions,” Ananthanarayanan told GreenBiz via email. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2023 report offers companies guidance on this.

2. There’s no silver bullet alternative to plastics

Plant-based bioplastics can have significant climate impacts from beginning to end-of-life, from fertilizer use to land-use changes to decomposition in landfills, said Rich Grousett, circular economy consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting. There is no “best sustainable packaging,” he said.

Cutting plastics through materials efficiency and source reduction are the cheapest and most immediate ways to reduce emissions, said Ananthanarayanan. “It’s important to not move from one single-use problem to another, and to work toward alternatives that increase reuse, longer product life, and end-of-life material recovery,” she said.

Reuse and refill models have the biggest carbon reduction potential. “The opportunity for driving down carbon emissions through reuse curbs somewhere between 35 and 70 percent of carbon emissions,” said Dacie Meng, policy director, North America at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

3. Plastics are becoming a legal risk

In the climate regulation and litigation space, there is “a movement to address who is accountable for the impacts on people and the environment,” Dominique Chantale Alepin, a partner at Alepin Law & Consulting said, noting the 100 lawsuits globally that oil and gas companies face. In the U.S. Vermont became the first state to pass a law requiring oil and gas companies to pay for climate-related damage.

Moreover, that playbook is expanding into other areas. The New York attorney general, for example, sued PepsiCo on public nuisance grounds, claiming the company misled the public about the harms plastic has on the environment, Alepin said. 

In addition, the rise of reporting requirements, from California’s climate bills to Europe’s Corporate Reporting Sustainability Directive, is creating a trove of data that is becoming a risk-management issue, Alepin said. That data “becomes important to investors, to law enforcement, plaintiffs’ attorneys. They want to go after the people who are having the biggest impact and are not doing anything.”

4. End-of-life management can cut emissions

Nineteen percent of plastic waste is incinerated globally. A further 22 percent evades waste management systems and is burned in open pits or ends up in marine or terrestrial ecosystems, according to OECD. Only 9 percent is recycled.

That offers major opportunities for reducing the climate impacts of plastics at the end of their lifecycle. Shifting to reusable packaging and containers, for example, keeps plastic waste from ending up in a burn pit.

Recycling cannot solve the plastics crisis, several speakers said. Many plastics are a blend of materials which makes them difficult to recycle. Recycled plastic contains toxic chemicals and is an inferior product compared to virgin material, with far fewer markets.

Nevertheless, it’s one important solution, said Kate Bailey, chief policy officer of the Association of Plastics Recyclers. “Every one ton [of plastics] you recycle cuts three tons of carbon emissions. This is one of the easiest things we can do right now,” she said. “Across the board — plastic, metal, glass — the data [show that if you] increase your use of recycled content, you will lower your carbon footprint.”

5. Laws are coming: Embrace the change

Five U.S. states have enacted extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws and nearly a dozen more have proposals pending. Beyond requiring companies to be responsible for the end-of-life of their packaging, some laws include incentives or mandates for increasing recycling and reducing plastic packaging.

“Embrace that laws are coming. Embrace the change and [be] bold with proposals,” said Nicol Sobczyk Costello, vice president, circular economy at L’Oréal. EPR laws have helped “because it’s helped bring a lot of people [along] that weren’t fully on board, because now it’s a must-have,” she said.

6. Collaborate to scale impact

EPR laws provide an opportunity for companies to collaborate to scale their programs offering customers a refillable or reusable container option over a single-use product,  Costello said.

L’Oreal discusses its refill strategy with its retail partners, other stakeholders and external groups, like the U.S. Plastics Pact, Costello said. “This isn’t going to work unless we have a lot more people on board with us. Pilots are not going to be effective moving forward.”

“It’s about shared infrastructure, pre-competitive collaborations and the universal sharing of” packaging types and bottles, said Grousett.

“We can only go at this together to have the scale and impact [that’s] necessary,” said Costello.



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