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Plastic use in consumer goods causes US$75 billion in damages a year

Damages incurred in environmental terms are brought about by climate change and pollution, but an environmental consultancy paper illustrates how governments can help companies make more sustainable choices.

Plastic is widely used to wrap and protect consumer goods, but the use of petrochemical-based plastic is costing society an estimated US$75 billion of environmental damages every year.

By switching to just two readily-available sustainable plastics, environmental costs can be reduced by about US$3.5 billion, with the potential for more savings if the private sector and business work together to seek sustainable plastic alternatives.

According to a discussion paper published last week by the London-headquartered environmental data consultancy Trucost, this cost is largely derived from petrochemical-based plastic causing climate change and pollution, in particular, marine pollution.

The paper titled ‘Scaling “Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics towards a Circular Economy’ said waste plastic has been undervalued in the economy because the environmental cost has not been properly valuated.

“By assessing the environmental cost benefits of sustainable plastic initiatives, companies and governments can better understand the business case for investment,” said Richard Mattison, chief executive of Trucost.

The use of plastic in the consumer industry is not all bad and the paper noted that it actually poses many benefits.

Besides reducing food waste, plastic also cuts down on pollution and the resources needed for transportation because it is light-weight. However, around 8 per cent of current fossil fuel dependency is attributed to plastic production, and most of the plastic is used just once and then thrown away.

Sustainable plastic, a long-term solution 

A viable long-term solution, however, can be found in the use of sustainable plastics, said the paper, which was based on interviews with plastic and recycling experts, as well as case studies of companies such as US computer giant Dell and clean technology company Algix.

Innovations in closed-loop recycling, plant-based plastic and biodegradable polymers can achieve a more circular economy and reduce the environmental cost of conventional, fossil fuel-based plastic.

Trucost’s environmental benefit analysis found that Dell’s OptiPlex 3030 computer, which uses recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment through the company’s own take-back scheme, has a US$700 million environmental cost saving to society.

Another example is the use of a low-carbon polymer called Solaplast, which is made from algae manufactured by Algix. The paper demonstrated that if the footwear sector switched to Solaplast, its environmental cost could be reduced by US$1.5 billion per year. For the soft drinks sector, the benefits would come up to US$1.3 billion.

Governments must guide action

The paper noted that few companies innovate new processes and technologies, largely due to the lack of awareness on the environmental impact caused by plastic use.

When policy makers put a correct value on plastic, companies and consumers would then have an incentive to recycle plastic into new products, reducing the dependency on petrochemicals to make new plastic materials.

By valuing the environmental costs and benefits of plastic use, companies are also in a better position to make informed decisions about how plastic use in their business has an impact on the environment.  

Doug Woodring, co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance which supported the discussion paper, said: “Companies now realise that environmental sustainability has a positive impact not only on the communities they serve, but also on their own bottom line.

“Managing the plastic ecosystem through recycling, reuse and closed-loop methods can create jobs, save money, improve brand value and create supply-chain efficiency.”

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