Plastic Waste Collection

Plastic Footprint: A Holistic Overview

Dive deep into a comprehensive literature review of a plastic footprint. Our review covers the background, indicators, and reduction principles of leading plastic footprint research.  

A plastic footprint is an indicator that is used to measure the negative impacts of plastic pollution associated with a region, country, event, individual, organization, product, or service.1 These measurements are tracked through plastic footprint accounting, which is a subset of ecological accounting. The plastic footprint is usually quantified by mass (mostly pounds, kilograms, or metric tons). However, it is increasingly recognized that a sole focus on mass does not accurately capture the total impact of mismanaged plastics, and their negative effects on the environment, society, and economy.2 As a result, the latest methodologies for plastic footprint accounting adjust the indicator through the inclusion of polymer type, toxicity, end destination, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors.3

Plastics are a ubiquitous group of materials and can be found in almost every supply chain. While they can offer significant advantages over alternatives, their contribution to climate change and the exponential increase of plastic pollution is creating a global call to action.

1. Background

The plastics industry is one of the top 10 contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and has a crucial role in the transition to a circular and low-carbon economy.4 The global production of plastics has quadrupled in the period from 1980 to 2020.5 If the growth of plastic production and incineration continues without any major abatement efforts, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from plastics are forecasted to exceed 56 gigatonnes Co2e by 2050 and will encompass up to 15% of the remaining emissions budget.6

Transitioning to a circular economy is an essential undertaking to avoid runaway climate change.7 In 2015, 407 million tonnes of plastics manufactured from virgin materials entered the use phase, whereas 302 million tonnes left it to primarily be disposed of.8 Unfortunately, of the 359 million tonnes of plastics produced per year, up to 12.7 million tonnes (~3%) end up in the ocean.9 10 Globally, only 9% of plastics undergo the process of plastic recycling.11 The rest is either landfilled, incinerated, or ends up polluting the environment.12

Amidst the growing concern to better manage their material use and reduce plastic pollution, various businesses are joining governments in making commitments to reduce plastic production and consumption.13 Furthermore, legislation such as extended producer responsibility is being lobbied for, complementing initiatives to increase recycled content in products, packaging, and other applications of plastics.14 

Plastic footprint accounting opens new perspectives of the global supply chain for plastics and the shared responsibility for their negative impacts.15 The resulting transparency is enabling individual, corporate and governmental accountability and ultimately accelerating the transition to a circular economy.

2. Plastic Footprint Principles

To ensure efficacy, various principles for plastic footprint management have been defined:16 

  1. Regular and consistent accounting: The causes and drivers of a plastic footprint should be measured by standardized methodologies on a regular basis. 
  2. Prioritizing internal mitigation activities: Plastic footprint mitigation should abide by the waste hierarchy and focus on actions within the supply chain.
  3. Responsible communication: Leadership commitments and claims should be transparent and focus on a long-term vision and strategy.17

3. Measuring Plastic Footprints

3.1 Methodologies

There is currently no standard methodology to measure, reduce, and communicate a plastic footprint. As of 2019, 19 methodologies have been identified.18 Most methodologies inform the calculation of plastic footprints using the following variables:19 

  1. The quantity and composition of plastics used in a system;
  2. The quantity and composition of plastics in a system that reached the end of their lifecycle;
  3. The quantity and composition of plastics emitted into the environment during production, consumption, and disposal (often referred to as plastic leakage);20
  4. The impact, direct or indirect, of leaked plastics and associated additives and chemicals on the environment, society, and economy.
Plastic Footprint Accounting Boundries

3.2 Accounting Boundaries

Plastic footprint accounting should be performed for each unique supply chain activity within the lifecycle of plastics. The boundaries can be defined as follows:21
 
  1. Tier 1: covers pre-consumer plastic waste whose end of life destination you can influence as a company (e.g. plastics used at the warehouse, workplace-related plastics);
  2. Tier 2: measures post-consumer plastic waste whose end of life destination you can only partially influence as a company (e.g. product packaging, protective packaging used for shipping directly to the consumer);
  3. Tier 3: includes all other activities in the supply chain of a company that creates plastic waste (e.g. plastics used for agriculture, microplastics).22
Where data availability and accuracy are limited, most methodologies focus on the causes of plastic footprints that can be accounted for with some degree of certainty, and approximate the rest. As the abundance and quality of data improve, the difficulty to assess causes and drivers of plastic footprints may be added to the assessment boundary. 

4. Causes and Drivers

A plastic footprint measures the quantity of plastic pollution and should ideally be adjusted for its negative externalities on affected environments, societies, and economies.

4.1 Quantity of Plastic Pollution

When measuring the quantity of plastic pollution, plastic use (i.e., plastic consumption per supply chain activity), plastic waste generation (i.e., the quantity of plastics reaching the end of their lifecycle), and plastic leakage (i.e., the portion of plastic waste that ends up in the environment) have to be considered.23 24

Starting with plastic use, the supply chain activity and industrial use sector often play a relevant role.25 The packaging sector tends to be the primary driver of plastic use, accounting for 42% of all applications.26 Construction was the second-largest sector, accounting for 19%.27 Most of the plastics used for packaging leave use the same year they are produced, whereas construction plastics leaving use were produced decades earlier.28

Next, in order, is the quantity of plastics that reach the end of their lifecycle after their production, transportation, or consumption. This variable can partially be controlled by product design.29 Plastic applications that follow circular design principles tend to create a lower quantity of waste for an equivalent activity compared to their single-use counterparts.30 The principle of compact by design is another concept that helps minimize the amount of plastics reaching the end of their lifecycle.31

As the third variable, the fate of plastics and the associated consequences depend on the ability to treat them at the end of their lifecycle using a method that follows the principles of a circular economy. Conventional circular treatment methods include reuse, repair, recycling, and composting.32 When assessing the risk of plastic leakage, it is key to consider factors such as the recyclability, market value, and geographical location of the material.33 The economics are later determined by the costs incurred to make the material ready to be repurposed and the existing market demand for the product.34

4.2 Ecosystem Impact

Complementing the quantity of plastic pollution, a plastic footprint should be adjusted for the negative externalities imposed on affected environments, societies, and economies.35 Such negative impacts are influenced by the chemical composition, toxicity, application, and geographical location of the leaked material.36 Moreover, the negative impacts of plastic pollution differ by geographic location and ecosystem resilience.37 Ecosystems, where plastics are produced, used, and disposed of, are particularly affected.38 The resilience of the affected environment, society, and economy, and their adaptive capacity are other determining factors.39

5. Reducing Plastic Footprints

The most effective way to reduce the plastic footprint is to start with mitigation measures at the beginning of the plastic supply chain.40 This is primarily because a reduction in the overall production and use of plastics would immediately relieve pressure on municipal solid waste management systems.41 Such efforts should be complemented by sourcing more recycled materials and applying design principles that enable a circular economy.42 Lastly, action against plastic pollution can be amplified by investing in external opportunities that help keep plastics in the loop.43

5.1 Avoid the Use of Plastics Where Possible

As the waste hierarchy explains, the ton of plastic that is never created is the one with the greatest positive impact. Reducing the overall demand for plastic is essential to cope with the exponential growth trend.44 Where plastics cannot be avoided, it may be possible to reduce the quantity.45 Furthermore, novel technologies and internal process enhancements can provide more transparency and thus enable better decision-making.46 Where the reduction of plastic use is not possible, alternative materials to plastics should be explored. In doing so, however, life-cycle assessments should be carried out in order to avoid unintended consequences.47

5.2 Optimize the Sourcing, Design and Use of Essential Plastics

Where plastics cannot be avoided, alternative measures can be taken to reduce the plastic footprint. First, companies should seek to source recycled or renewable polymers. Such alternative materials include recycled or responsibly sourced bio-based resins.48 Second, product design can have a noticeable impact on the durability and the impacts of plastics. For example, it is recommended to avoid multi-layered materials, challenge the choice of colors, avoid unnecessary additives, and clearly communicate the recommended method of disposal.49

5.3 Act and Engage for a More Circular System

Once in the hands of consumers, the moment when a plastic product reaches its end of life and is disposed of can often not be controlled. That’s why it is crucial to enhance consumer awareness and create better waste management systems. During consumer education, repurposing, reusing, and recycling plastic products should be promoted to ensure that the lifecycle can be extended.50 Moreover, new technologies, better processes, and targeted financial support can help improve the current waste management system.51 These efforts will make it more likely that segregated materials are collected, transported to a recycling facility, recycled, and ultimately used as a new input material. Such actions create substantial opportunities for job creation, increased resilience, and better long-term outcomes for the environment, societies, and economies.52

6. Establishing an Action Plan

The first step of reducing an organization’s plastic footprint is measurement and analysis. Proper analysis can help unravel the complex ecosystem and highlight a plastic footprint reduction strategy.

Above all, transparent and accountable plastic reduction strategies should be prioritized. A focus on reduction, as opposed to compensation, will help turn off the tap on plastics and accelerate a world with less waste 

Plastic management and accounting platforms can help to bridge the gap and allow organizations to navigate uncharted waters. It’s time to turn the tide on plastics and prioritize environmental stewardship. 

References

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