Business needs to consider plastic footprint as much as carbon
Companies could become more sustainable by improving the way they measure, manage and report the amount of plastic they use in their business operations and supply chains, according to ground-breaking new research by the Plastic Disclosure Project, the UN Environment Programme and natural capital analysts Trucost.
The report, entitled Valuing plastic: the business case for measuring, managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry, was published at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
The research is the first-ever assessment of the environmental costs of plastic in business. It calculates the amount of plastic used by stock exchange listed companies in sixteen consumer goods sectors and assesses levels of corporate disclosure on plastic. Its aim is to help companies understand the risks and opportunities of plastic and build a business case for improving its management.
Trucost calculates the total natural capital cost of plastic in the consumer goods industry to be more than US$75 billion per year. The cost comes from a range of environmental impacts including the harm done by plastic litter to wildlife in the ocean and the loss of valuable resources when plastic waste is sent to landfill rather than being recycled.
Plastic use in the food sector has the largest impact in absolute terms, responsible for almost a quarter of the total natural capital cost. The toy sector has the largest natural capital intensity, as the natural capital cost of its plastic use is equivalent to 3.9% of its annual revenue.
The most significant downstream impact of plastic use by the consumer goods sector is marine pollution, which has a natural capital cost of at least $13bn. This is likely to be an underestimate due to the need for further scientific research, for example, on the impact of small particles of plastic known as microplastic. The most significant upstream impact is greenhouse gas emissions released from producing plastic feedstock, which is responsible for almost a third of the total natural capital cost.
The impacts of plastic vary around the world. Companies face higher natural capital costs if they purchase or dispose of plastic in Asia compared to North America, Europe or Oceania due to the higher pollution intensity of manufacturing in Asia and its lack of adequate waste management facilities.
At present, levels of disclosure are poor with only half of the 100 consumer goods companies assessed reporting at least one item of data on plastic use. Disclosure rates vary widely, with no companies in the athletic goods and footwear sectors reporting any usable data compared to almost 90% of firms in the durable household goods sector.
Andrew Russell, director of the Plastic Disclosure Project, commented: “The research unveils the need for companies to consider their plastic footprint just as they do for carbon, water and forestry. By measuring, managing and reporting plastic use and disposal through the PDP, companies can mitigate the risks, maximize the opportunities, and become more successful and sustainable businesses.”
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