Despite the great efforts of environmentalists to publicize the dangers of plastic for our environment, the consumption and production of plastic is increasing throughout the world. This means that in addition to the damage that plastic waste causes to our oceans and wildlife, we must deal with the growing carbon footprint of the plastic production process.
Research of the Center for International Environmental Law reported that emissions from plastics production could reach 1.34 gigatonnes per year by 2030. This is equivalent to the emissions from 295 coal-fired power plants. And the outlook for plastic production by 2050 is even worse.
While this paints a bleak picture of a planet struggling with an existential plastic problem, there are signs that change is coming. Governing bodies continue to introduce new policies to combat the environmental effects of plastic. In March 2022, the member countries of the United Nations signed a treaty with the aim of putting an end to “the plight of plastic pollution”. Details are yet to come, but the goal is to tackle plastic production throughout its life cycle and reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and oceans.
While the end of plastic pollution is still some way off, climate concerns are mounting and forcing governments and corporations to act. This year’s record heat waves and droughts will only exacerbate this.
The race to decarbonization is likely to increase in the coming years. So how should the plastics industry respond?
The benefits of carbon accounting
The key to much-needed changes in carbon emissions from the plastics industry could be carbon accounting, sometimes called greenhouse gas accounting. Carbon accounting is the process companies carry out to measure the amount of carbon dioxide emissions they are responsible for.
The main objective of carbon accounting is to assign a specific value to the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions produced by a company. This allows carbon credits to be traded between states, companies, and various individuals in the carbon market.
As more companies strive to reduce their own carbon footprint and reach net zero carbon emissions, carbon accounting serves as an excellent first step in establishing environmentally friendly business practices. In short, carbon accounting provides companies and third parties with numerical data, so that companies can take responsibility for their carbon footprint.
Carbon accounting also leads to carbon assessment. So carbon accounting is essentially about generating a number. The carbon assessment uses that number to enable companies to fully understand their carbon emissions and, much more importantly, implement the necessary actions to actively reduce those emissions and create a more sustainable business.
How to take advantage of carbon accounting
Carbon accounting for a carbon-heavy industry like plastics is certainly complex. And many environmental activists believe that the industry would not be willing to reduce its carbon footprint voluntarily. So what would be the point of monitoring it in the first place?
First, having a broad overview of carbon emissions can ultimately help companies save money throughout their supply chain. Effective carbon accounting can help companies identify where they can cut costs and find less expensive solutions.
Furthermore, the tides of both public opinion and investor sentiment are definitely turning. Consumers are looking to their favorite brands to act decisively to address climate change. And Wall Street is increasingly taking sustainability into account when making decisions about where to invest. Investors and consumers are more likely to respond positively to companies that are taking tangible steps toward greener ways of doing business.
The plastics industry has the potential to set an example to all other industries on the importance of measuring your carbon footprint. In fact, it could influence other high-carbon companies, or companies with a poor environmental record, to do the same. It could harness this influence in developing carbon offset initiatives, efforts to fund recycling programs around the world, and more biopolymer research.
More accountability, less greenwashing
Carbon accounting also allows companies to collect and distribute hard data that can help establish transparency and trust with both consumers and investors. The more transparent the accounting process, the less likely it is that companies will be the target of greenwashing accusations.
The fear of accusation and retaliation is all too real. This summer, the Changing Markets Foundation criticized a number of organizations for providing misleading information about the use of recycled plastic. The report claimed that these companies did not actually provide any evidence on how they are tackling plastic pollution. Carbon accounting could have served as evidence that these companies were, in fact, striving to reduce carbon emissions.
Carbon accounting also allows governments to pass new laws or requirements related to the life cycle of plastics. Companies that calculate their carbon emissions through a verified process such as carbon accounting can demonstrate their willingness to comply with these new environmental regulations.
To be prepared
We believe that there are players in the plastics industry who understand the tangible and intangible benefits of reducing the environmental impact of plastics. That starts with carbon accounting.
It seems clear that governments around the world will eventually require carbon reporting. Companies would be wise to start preparing now for such a seismic policy shift. And once the plastics industry makes the switch, other industries will surely follow.
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