Plastic offsetting has become one of the latest ways in which companies and consumers can engage in the battle against plastic waste. But what exactly is plastic offsetting and what are some of the challenges with this tactic?
What is plastic offsetting?
Like carbon offsetting, plastic offsetting is based on the idea that companies and consumers can offset or compensate their plastic consumption by purchasing plastic credits or directly funding social and environmental projects working with plastic waste.
For example, companies like RePurpose will calculate your plastic footprint, and then compensate your plastic impact for a yearly or monthly fee. Your funds are then directed towards a social enterprise of choice, such as a waste pick up service in a developing country. A similar method is available for companies, who can then market their plastic products and packaging as ‘plastic neutral’.
Similarly, the Plastic Collective has a programme in place which will crown consumers ‘Plastic Neutral’ for $55 a year, by removing 53 kg of plastic waste. For the removal of 212 kg of plastic, in exchange for $220, you are guaranteed ‘Plastic Awesome’. Pledges can also be made by companies who can create their own customisable package.
Yet with more businesses under pressure to reduce their plastic waste and thus exploring these types of services – is this approach too good to be true?
Lack of standardisation
Although companies and governments are using a similar approach to reduce their carbon emissions, unlike carbon offsetting, there is no standardisation in place for plastic offsetting.
Companies use different methods to measure plastic consumption, which means that it is currently hard to assess the value and integrity of the offerings available. In some instances, the lines appear blurred between offsetting and charitable donations.
However, some progress is being made. Companies such as Verra, are setting up a Plastic Waste Reduction Standard, which aims to streamline accounting and crediting standards for certification. While IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) is looking to develop a standardised plastic footprint tool, based on a Quantis review of various plastic footprint methodologies.
But despite these developments, there remains an underlying criticism around the method.
Is there a flaw in the approach?
Similar to carbon offsetting, the key concern with plastic offsetting is that offsetting won’t incentivise companies and individuals to make any real changes in their behaviour – but will simply allow them to continue their plastic intensive practices.
Instead of reducing unnecessary plastic or replacing plastic with more sustainable materials such as recycled plastic, the problem is ‘solved’ by diverting funds elsewhere.
However, this is perhaps not a flaw in the design – but rather one of personal responsibility. In some situations, plastic offsetting can be useful.
Multiple strategies are better than one
For some companies, plastic offsetting could serve as an interim solution as they move away from virgin plastic, and may help to mitigate plastic waste, where plastic remains the most viable packaging solution.
In that case, plastic offsetting should ideally be part of a wider, hierarchy of strategies, coming in as a last resort for plastics that don’t yet have a readily available solution, such as low value plastics.
A reduction in unnecessary plastic followed by the use of more sustainable materials, such as recycled plastic, should come first. But how popular will this approach become?
Will plastic offsetting take off?
Although it is still early days and the actual uptake remains unclear, it is questionable whether plastic offsetting will take off – especially amongst consumers.
Although there have been some successes with carbon offsetting for companies, according to a poll by Ipsos Mori, 88% of Americans have never purchased a carbon offset and one in three had never even heard of it. Carbon offsetting for air travel has also been underwhelming, averaging around 2% of airline sales according to International Air Transport Association, reported by Wired.
Perhaps it will be different for plastic? Only time will tell.
Although offsetting isn’t for everyone, developing a standardised system which ensures the value and integrity of plastic offsets will be needed. Yet in a world, where many things have become more elusive, plastic offsetting doesn’t feel like an entirely ‘real’ solution. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be one – it just shouldn’t be the only one.