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While plastic has a lower carbon footprint than other materials including metal and glass, that’s not the full picture, as reusability, biodegradability and life cycle leakage must also be considered. Our assessment partner Quantis argues the need to look more closely at plastic footprints.
The alarm has sounded on the plastic crisis. Faced with intense public pressure to act, companies and authorities are taking dramatic measures and making strong commitments to address the plastic pollution problem. Many quick fixes have been identified, such as banning plastic straws, taxing plastic bags, and reducing single use items. These measures are important and helpful, but they don’t go far enough. Plastic pollution does not just happen at a product’s end-of-life. Depending on the industry, plastic leakage can also take place during the use phase, the production process, or even further back along the supply chain.
To effectively switch off the tap on plastic leakage, stakeholders must be able to detect the leaks within their own industry and supply chain. Clear and reliable data on plastic leakage hotspots is needed to ensure companies put their efforts towards the most important and effective actions to solve this problem at a systemic level.
MEASURING THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES OF PLASTIC
Plastic is versatile, durable, malleable, lightweight and low cost. It can help maintain freshness, hygiene and preserve the ideal condition of food products. Additionally, plastic often has a lower carbon footprint per kilogram produced than alternative materials, including metal and glass. This is largely attributed to lower energy requirements during the production and transport phases, the latter of which is related to plastic’s lightweight nature.
While plastics may be a good option in terms of carbon emissions, the leakage of plastic and potentially toxic additives into the environment has prompted a call for action. This is the direct result of plastic leaking into the environment, in particular waterways and the ocean, throughout the production, transport and use stages, as well as from poorly managed post-consumer waste. To have a complete picture of the advantages and impacts related to plastic usage, it is necessary to take a complete life cycle view of plastic-based materials with metrics that also measure micro-plastic leakage at a regional level and assess it within a comprehensive framework.
WASTE VS MICROPLASTICS: THE VISIBLE AND THE INVISIBLE
Plastic enters oceans and soils from various sources and pathways, but mainly from two different streams: the visible macroplastics resulting from mismanaged waste, and the mostly invisible microplastics released from different sources, such as synthetic clothing while washing. The amount of leakage of these different types of plastic is dependent on the geographical context: leakage of macroplastics from mismanaged waste mainly occurs in coastal countries, especially countries with less adapted waste treatment facilities.
On the other hand, microplastics are much more pervasive and have more subtle routes to marine environments. These include cosmetics and personal care product use, washing synthetic materials (such as polyester), as well as tyres and road wear particles. Released through household wastewater or road run-off, microplastics can pass through treatment systems and end up in the rivers and oceans with significant detrimental effects on ecosystems and human health.
QUICK FIXES VS HOLISTIC SOLUTIONS
The status quo is currently in “crisis-mode” and is trying to tackle the problem with quick fixes that don't get to the root cause of the problem from a holistic perspective. One example of this is collecting ocean plastic to make new products: it’s a great way to raise awareness and minimise the damage that has already been done, but we need more proactive, rather than reactive, approaches. Similarly, bio-based plastics might have a better public perception, but they may come with a higher carbon footprint and may be difficult to recycle or properly dispose of at the end of life.
Many international organisations are concerned and beginning to take action, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the world’s largest environmental NGO —as well as the United Nations (UN) with an Ocean Conference and a New UN Resolution signed in Dec 2017 in Nairobi by 200 countries. Also the European Commission is committed to contribute to the problem with its European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and recently published Rules to reduce marine litter including bans, targets and obligations.
The same goes for companies. Businesses and brands are seeking to implement a variety of viable and meaningful actions to address their plastic impact. Although solutions to the plastics problem may vary, the approach and the facts guiding decision-making must be consistent and evidence based. We must assess solutions on a case-by-case basis and consider the trade-offs in a transparent and harmonised way.
CIRCULARITY AND LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT
Current Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodologies do not account for plastic leakage into the environment. In order to fully understand the impact of plastic within a complete environmental framework - one that takes into account other impacts including carbon emissions, water eutrophication and toxicity - it is necessary to integrate accounting of plastic leakage into accepted Life Cycle methodologies. We therefore need to act now to build on existing LCA methods which will enable us to move towards meeting goals for a circular economy that makes a critical impact on waste.
The release of plastics into the environment demonstrates a systemic failure to achieve fully circular material flows. Closing the plastic loop is crucial, but it is not the only way to solve the problem of plastic leakage. Life cycle assessment can be used as a tool in synergy with circularity principles to better understand the problem and work toward a comprehensive and effective solution to optimise plastic use and end-of-life management.
First, the entire life cycle of a product or a company - including the leakage of microplastics - needs to be considered instead of focusing solely on the end-of-life of plastic. Second, it should be recognised that in some cases 100% recycling is not the best option (e.g. if logistics constraints are too high), and incineration with energy recovery could be a better option in terms of global environmental performance, with a lower carbon footprint. Finally, the plastic leakage assessment should fit within a holistic environmental framework, in order to measure all impacts in a coherent manner and avoid the risk of increasing impacts on other indicators, such as climate change.
Quantis is currently working to balance these sometimes opposing realities to find solutions. Collectively, experts need to work together to integrate the impacts of plastic pollution into the LCA framework and develop methods that can help guide decision-making, building on the best available science and life cycle thinking to complement existing LCA methods to work towards closing the plastic loop.
THE NEED FOR A PLASTIC LEAKAGE METRIC
To continue to tackle our urgent environmental challenges, we need to adapt our tools and methods accordingly and not be confined by status quo methods. This is certainly the case with the emerging problem of marine plastic pollution. The process and need are similar to those behind the development of other new LCA methods, such as water footprinting and land use change accounting.
Resources and time are needed to build consistent and evidence-based methods. However, businesses need to know what they can do now to address ocean plastic pollution.
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