The environmental zeitgeist is entering a new paradigm and that paradigm is plastic offset. So what is it really, and how can it stem the global plastic pollution tide?
Simply put, a certain amount of plastic waste would be collected from the atmosphere on your behalf as an individual or as a corporation for every dollar a polluter contributes.
Throughout the developing world, green waste management companies have arisen to provide our plastic crisis with sustainable and effective solutions, yet they are still underfunded and unable to scale. Plastic replacement, inspired by carbon credit, is a revolutionary way to finance these developments to accelerate our transition to a circular economy.
There are as many ways to do wrong plastic offset as there are ways to do it right, just like carbon. With the complex relationship between consumer responsibility and producer accountability it is challenging yet entirely possible to generate truly meaningful impacts. From Mumbai's landfills and alleyways to New York's corporate headquarters, we've spent years understanding both local needs and global waste-management systems. Here are 3 principles on how to make plastic offset, right.
Principle 1: Hit the problem where it hurts
Anywhere in the developing world, if you pay attention to the kinds of plastics that are currently littering our highways, beaches and landfills, you'll notice a trend–it's dominated by low-value plastics like to-go containers, candy wrappers, and plastic bags.
These materials are classified as plastic of low value, because they are extremely hard to recycle. Shanghai, Cairo, New Delhi, Nairobi, Jakarta–a vibrant informal recycling industry exists in cities around the world and employs tens of millions of workers who form the backbone of the infrastructure for local waste management. Unlike the high-value materials (PET, HDPE) with an established supply chain for recycling, these workers don't even collect low-value plastic because it inherently lacks any financial value. As a result, they have become the most frequently found items which degrade our environment and pollute it.
At rePurpose, we believe that dealing with plastic that would otherwise never have been recycled is the most genuine way to offset your plastic footprint. Offsetting by recycling high-value plastics such as PET is not a good practice as it offers marginal environmental additionality: these materials would probably have been picked up and recycled by workers in the informal industry by their high value nature anyway.
Instead we put a price on low-value plastic through your offset contribution and pay informal workers to intercept it before it reaches the oceans or landfills, adding a crucial income stream for these marginalized workers in addition to their work with materials such as PET and HDPE.
After collecting the plastic, either we use it to make bricks and roads or we co-process it through pyrolysis, a practice that uses low-value plastics as an energy source in industries typically burning coal to meet their high energy demands (e.g. cement kilns). Through this process plastics of low value kick out coal and are cleanly incinerated. We know that this system is not perfect: however, given the extremely low value of these materials, the high cost of separating them, and the lack of technology to recover them, co-processing is the best solution for those plastics that would otherwise have been landfilled or flushed into oceans.
Principle 2: Creating a Democratic, Trustworthy Ecosystem
A best practice from the carbon credit space established is where offset providers work with local organizations to implement the offset rather than developing their own operations. For three reasons, this practice makes sense for plastic offset: Local waste management initiatives have an established history and expertise in their work and we should engage and empower existing efforts to effectively deliver impact.
As offset implementers it boosts cost-effectiveness and offset providers can focus on their own functions while working together. Collaborating against competing reinforces impact and fosters our shared mission.
Operating via collaborators helps a third party like the offset provider to track & assess operations by strict measurement criteria, allowing consistent communication of impact to PlasticNeutral going individual or organization.
At rePurpose, we partner with three reputable social waste management companies in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad with proven track record of plastic pollution battling and transforming urban India to a circular economy. Through extensive research, any foreign intermediary may understand needs on the ground, but having witnessed the complexities of waste management in Asia first-hand, we realized that our impact is best achieved with local partners who have been doing waste management for years, if not decades.
Principle 3: It's also about the people behind the plastic
For more than 25 years, wealthy Western countries like the US, Canada, and the UK have shipped their plastic waste to poorer Asian countries that are struggling to even handle their own waste simply because the economies of recycling the garbage of their own citizens at home make no sense. Since China, which used to take in two-thirds of the world's plastic waste by the end of 2017 banned all new imports, more waste was redirected to countries such as India, Thailand and Malaysia with much more informal waste management systems.
So it's not just about the plastic anymore-it's also about the people and communities that it impacts. Over 50 million informal workers worldwide spend their whole lives dealing with the consequences of our mindless consumption, all without recognition as environmental heroes or access to basic health care or education that traps them within a generational cycle of abject poverty. In India, an average waste picker spends 12 hours a day scavenging in dumpsters and landfills for recyclable waste, earning under $5 from an exploitative supply chain.
We assume that any plastic replacement should communicate with informal waste staff actively and clearly motivate them.
An offset at rePurpose funds committed impact projects that are co-created with each PlasticNeutral partner to help them inspire employees. Through moving scavengers into the formal sector, we ensure decent jobs (tackling social stigma), equal wages and benefits (preventing income instability and ensuring a social safety net), and safe conditions (regulated facilities with safety equipment, as opposed to manual landfill scavenging). Furthermore, to break the cycle of poverty, we help provide savings accounts, health insurance, and educational support for the workers ' children.
Today, the negative effects of plastic pollution reach beyond the atmosphere to those people who receive the majority of the garbage burden on the planet. For order to effectively neutralize the risks of plastic pollution, plastic mitigation schemes must therefore be socially impactful.
Plastic offset: supporting the transformation of our planet to a circular economy While plastic offsetting is a fairly new concept,
the model is already being adopted by conscientious consumers and forward thinking companies around the world. We should however carefully direct offset use in order to avoid greenwashing. For example, brands which use plastic offsetting to their own degrading practices as a PR bandaid should never be allowed.
We believe, however, that plastic credit has the potential to solve the bigger systemic issue at stake, a linear economy that has created an unchecked production and consumption system. We started recycling social enterprises where we can easily verify the amount of waste taken from the environment & sell that credit to consumers and businesses, but we also realize that recycling is just a band-aid solution.
We are now working to use our proven plastic crediting methodology to fund experimental innovations that combine to replace and redesign plastics. Simply put, for every kilogram of plastic an invention can tangibly remove from a supply chain in manufacturing, one credit can be produced and sold to the public to further finance the innovation.
Plastic offsetting can be a powerful tool for mobilizing resources to solve plastic pollution-induced environmental and social crises. But make sure that you do it right, by ensuring that your offset meets the above principles. Together we are able to reduce waste, revive lives and restore the balance of nature–join us and go #PlasticNeutral, today!