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How Transparency in Plastic Use Can Benefit Companies and Investors

A man attempts to navigate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by kayak. | Image credit: The Junk Wave

Discarded plastic, with a half-life of hundreds of years for some products, continues to find its way into our environment at ever-growing rates. Sadly, since our waste management and recycling infrastructure does not come close to being able to handle the amounts we discard, we are accumulating an eco-bank of problems that we are only now starting to fully appreciate.

Roughly 85% of the plastic used in products and packaging is not recycled, while most of the plastic produced in the past 60 years remains in the environment today (unless it has been burned, creating its own set of health issues along the way). Much of this plastic floats through our communities and emerges on beaches, and more often far at sea. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it is estimated that up to 80% of the plastic and waste that ends up in our ocean comes from land. A variety of studies have shown that hundreds of oceanic animal and bird species are negatively impacted by plastic waste, not to mention all of the land animals that also have been found with plastic in their stomachs. Through some of these animals, it is also likely that toxins carried by plastic are entering our food chain. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that plastic waste causes over US$1.2bn in damages per year in the Pacific region, impacting fishing, tourism, shipping, health, and agriculture. This does not include the land-based costs and impacts imposed on societies which are associated with excessive plastic trash, such as waste management, landfill operations and damage caused to communities by flooding city streets.

Unlike carbon, which is hard for people to see, touch and smell, and therefore difficult for people to feel close association with, plastic is a product that virtually every person and company on the planet comes in contact with on a daily basis. As such, the plastic resources we discard, in the form of trash, are a problem that we all can solve if we actually put our minds to it, quite possibly without a lot of pain in lifestyle changes along the way.

Conducting regular community beach or park cleanups, while desperately needed in some locations, is just the beginning of the solution. This helps to raise awareness, but it does little to bring about sustainable business practices and environmental restoration.

In order to address plastic waste on a global scale, the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) was announced at the Clinton Global Initiative in order to bring awareness and broad engagement to improving our plastic waste problems. This is an investor and multi-stakeholder program to encourage companies and other institutions to measure their footprint and develop plastic-management strategies to create a world where plastic adds value to businesses without negatively impacting the environment. This can be done on a global basis, without needing to change legislation, create bans, or impose taxes. It can be rapidly successful if we all look at ourselves, and our operations, “in the mirror,” and measure what we use and how we reuse it. Once measurement starts, better management practices and solutions will rapidly follow, as there will be knowledge to then understand what new options and solutions can be deployed.

The approach is simple: An annual disclosure request is sent on behalf of socially responsible investors and other community stakeholders to companies around the world that are users of plastic in their products or services, asking them to measure their plastic footprint. The goal is to inspire improved strategies for lessening plastic’s impact on the environment, managing the material in more efficient ways, and treating it as a resource instead of a waste product. This includes less waste in the supply chain, more recycling within one’s user base, more recycled content, new design, and the use of new materials.

Despite its short existence, companies in at least a dozen countries have already expressed interest in the project, with Lush Cosmetics having already completed their first analysis and disclosure, which identified ways to economize on plastic in their operations. Lush intend to file a PDP disclosure again this coming year. Because plastic is used by almost every industry in every country, PDP does not suggest that plastic not be used, but simply that it is utilized in a more efficient manner, with similar thought and care to what should be taken with carbon, water or other materials that are limited or can cause negative environmental impacts. Becoming involved in the PDP and undergoing an annual plastic footprint analysis will benefit companies and institutions who disclose their use, boosting savings, efficiencies and brand reputation, while ensuring a long-lasting positive impact on our environment for generations to come. Even though there is currently no tax on plastic, it is a highly valuable resource that needs to be managed effectively, and its visibility to consumers is significant, helping drive the intangible assets of a company’s valuation (which are shown to account for over 70% of the valuation of the Dow Jones market cap in a study done by Young and Rubicon). Therefore, demonstrating leadership in the management of plastic as a resource can both benefit, and derive benefit from, a growing community of users, customers, suppliers, employees and investors around the world who realize that plastic pollution is an escalating issue for their communities.

Participation and support of the PDP by the socially responsible community of asset managers and owners can have a dramatic positive impact on sustainability vis-à-vis plastic. The rationale for desiring more transparency includes costs to ecosystems, governments and human health; oil price fluctuations; brand reputations; and demonstration of strong leadership and business sense. Benefits come from investing in companies that are engaged in solving these problems, or reducing the impacts on their operations.

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was told that the future of the world was in plastic. Today, that still holds true, but the future is in the proper management and reuse of plastic, so that none of it ends up in our ecosystem. Those who demonstrate leadership in this area will attract customers, employees, partners, investors and success, as well as benefiting the environment.

Mr. Woodring is an environmental entrepreneur, a writer, a competitive athlete, a sports event organizer and a creative innovator on community issues. He is the co- founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization which is focused on… [Read more about Doug Woodring]

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