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Are companies really reducing waste with plastic credits, or just greenwashing?

Written by Mongabay Published on   8 mins read

The absence of global regulations, concerns about greenwashing, and the limitations of the current system highlight the need to establish new standards for governing plastic credits.
  • Companies and other entities are buying “plastic credits” allowing them to offset every ton of plastic they make with an equivalent amount of plastic waste collected and taken out of the environment elsewhere—often in poor nations lacking waste management programs. Several organizations now offer credits and will certify plastic collection and reuse.
  • No global standards or regulations govern the use of these plastic credits or assure their reliability, nor what gets done with the collected waste. Verra, which runs the world’s largest carbon credit verification system, but has come under fire for that system’s poor verification record, recently launched its own plastic credits verification system.
  • Skeptics warn the plastic credit systems being created by various organizations, rather than recycling significant plastic waste, merely amount to greenwashing and allow companies to continue to make and use polluting materials, while running PR campaigns to make themselves look environmentally responsible.
  • The credit system at best only deals with waste already manufactured and thrown out; it doesn’t address the need to ban the most toxic plastics, reduce production of others, or replace disposable single-use plastic with eco-friendly or reusable materials. Verra is urging that plastic credits become part of the UN global plastics treaty currently under negotiation.

Pay someone to clean up a ton of plastic fouling the environment in a developing nation and get certified to create another ton. Then call yourself pollution neutral. This system of “plastic credits” is catching on globally, especially among corporations.

Several organizations now sponsor a plastic credit certification process in Asia, the Pacific region, Africa and South America. But as of yet, no common standard or regulations govern the accuracy of the data on what is collected or how the collected material gets recycled and reused. In any event, critics note, the system only deals with the downstream issue of plastic already in the environment, and not the issue of the manufacture and use of plastic in the first place.

With plastic production rising exponentially, from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2020, and expected to double by 2040, it’s clear that plastic waste is increasing exponentially too, and credits by themselves can’t possibly keep up with the surge.

Plastic credits: As of yet, no common standard or regulations govern the accuracy of the data on what is collected or how the collected waste gets recycled and reused. Photo by Mali Maeder (Pexels).

“The plastic crisis is too large and imminent to be solved by a single solution or mechanism,” and credits are only part of the problem, according to Verra, a nonprofit that started in 2007 by creating verification systems for carbon credits, and more recently branched into verifying plastic credits. Verra has recommended that such credits become part of the United Nations Global Plastics Treaty currently under negotiation.

Several other companies around the world are also offering to arrange for collecting plastic from where it winds up and doesn’t belong (landfills, waterways, roadsides), and then verify credits, including Plastic Bank and Plastic Credit Exchange. “As the plastic credit market is still emerging, at this stage each issuing organization largely follows its own protocols that govern the process of creating credits,” says rePurpose Global, another crediting platform that “empowers business to act on plastic pollution.”

Who’s eligible to buy plastic credits? It currently depends on the verification organization. Verra, for example, allows anyone along the plastics pipeline to participate: plastic makers, companies that use plastic packaging, wholesalers, or even retailers. Peter Wang Hjemdahl, the co-founder of rePurpose, told Mongabay that “governments, philanthropies, individuals, and companies can all support verified plastic recovery because we need all hands on deck to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.”

Forbes reported that rePurpose already funds plastic recovery projects in six nations and is working with companies and organizations like Nestle, WWF, and the World Bank to create an international plastic offset standard.

With plastic production rising from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2020, and expected to double by 2040, it’s clear that plastic waste is increasing exponentially, and credits by themselves can’t possibly keep up with the surge. Photo by Ryan Brooklyn (Unsplash).

A wary response

Critics say there’s good reason to be skeptical of organizations offering plastic credit verification. They point to Verra’s carbon credit program which came under scrutiny this year for lack of verifiability and for serving as an excuse for companies not to reduce their carbon footprint. A recent investigation found that 90% of Verra’s verified rainforest carbon offsets were worthless “phantom credits” that failed to represent genuine carbon reductions.

Verra counters that plastic credits will be easier to verify than atmospheric emissions because auditors can see the physical material flow, from collection to reuse, and don’t have to speculate or calculate as with invisible gases. Verra may also have learned from its carbon credits experience, and is on the spot to perform this time, said Bjornulf Ostvik, CEO of Ecogensus, a New York City-based company focused on global recycling and sustainable waste management. “I don’t think there’s going to be patience with another credit system” that goes wrong, he said.

Ostvik estimates it could take at least a decade under the best possible scenario just to clean up existing plastic pollution, with verification programs being potentially helpful in that cleanup. “When you look beyond the 10–20-year time frame, or 10–30-year time frame … science will get to a point where waste [management] and recycling can evolve to where these types of programs [will then] start to become not needed.”

However, scientists emphasize that plastic cleanups and recycling can only deal with larger plastic waste. There is currently no technologically effective means for removing the microplastics that now pollute the environment—where these invisible particles pose risks to wildlife and even the climate.

A work in progress

Verra currently accredits four plastic credit projects, most recently opening one in Senegal, its first in Africa. There, it works with a local sustainability outfit called Africa Carbon & Commodities (ACC). It took a year and a half of setup and audit before Verra approved the Senegal program. It says 30 other accreditation projects are in the pipeline, while ACC plans to expand its operations into Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia.

ACC’s Deekali Plastic Project in Senegal provides paying jobs for landfill waste pickers, said managing director Nicole Dewing. They are trained as to what types of plastic can earn credits, since many types are not reusable. “They are not going to get paid if they bring the wrong kind of plastic,” she said.

Because of the lack of government-sponsored waste management programs in Senegal (population 17.9 million), analysts predict the small country will be deluged with more “unmanaged” plastic waste than the US by 2025, Dewing said, especially along its Atlantic coast. ACC’s project turns some collected waste into plastic lumber, which is then crafted into tables, desks and chairs for schools. But ACC says it currently lacks the machinery to recycle and reuse plastic bottles.

Verra’s certification process allows plastic to be incinerated or turned into energy to replace fossil fuel, but rePurpose doesn’t credit incinerated plastic. Incineration, also called pyrolysis, and dubbed “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” by the plastics industry, is controversial for the pollution it causes.

Accuracy assurances

Plastic credit providers say they use all sorts of methods to confirm accuracy. rePurpose said it “collects chain-of-custody documentation from all stakeholders involved in the supply chain. The protocol ensures timely audits, spot checks, unannounced site visits, and impact verification from third-party auditors on an ongoing basis.”

rePurpose also said that “certifications are not a license to continue using plastic and keep contributing to the plastic waste problem.” Company co-founder Hjemdahl said that “we have long-term engagements with over 300 brands and organizations globally to help them pursue a comprehensive plastic action strategy,” of which credits are only a part.

In the meantime, he said, “we’ve [validated collection of] 38 million pounds [17,200 metric tons] of plastic [and more that hasn’t been validated] that would be in the environment today if we hadn’t existed.” The Southern Hemisphere countries rePurpose works in lack strategies to clean up plastic waste, so presumably anything collected is a plus, he added.

As with other certifying organizations, rePurpose stresses its focus on accuracy, employing everything from visual inspections to outside auditors, Hjemdahl noted. “If there’s a discrepancy, we fix it,” using the most conservative figures.

He acknowledged that his company must take into consideration that those at various points along the recovery supply chain have incentives for providing different counts: Those selling the plastic want a higher count, whereas those buying (the plastic, not the credit) prefer to give a lower number. So certification inspectors need to check carefully at every step of the process.

Chris DeArmitt runs Phantom Plastics from Cincinnati, Ohio, which consults with businesses on plastics problems. He says credits can work because people won’t discard something if they find value in it. While people may throw away single-use bottles, he noted, “people don’t drop their credit cards.” He added that “the credits thing is just a lot of people trying to enrich themselves,” but the system works because of financial incentives.

Greenwashing risk

Critics see plastic credit systems as little more than window dressing, giving firms an excuse to continue making and using plastic rather than finding alternatives. The NGO #BreakFreeFromPlastic, which calls itself “the global movement envisioning a future free from plastic pollution,” documented that a Verra-certified incinerator in Bali, Indonesia, was fouling the air. And in Brazil, where Nestle was earning credits, the “certificates do not guarantee that the companies’ products are effectively recycled,” said the NGO, adding that Nestle hasn’t proved its activity is helping, rather than harming, the environment.

“It’s a downstream approach dealing only with plastic waste, and while that may address legacy plastics, it completely disregards the impacts of plastic in the earlier stages of [the] life cycle (extraction, production, consumer use). Also, cleanups are not necessarily in areas where the pollution of production or transportation occurs,” said Marian Ledesma, zero waste campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Credits give companies a pretext to keep making disposable plastics products, she adds. “Unfortunately, there has not been as much effort to look at plastic reduction,” or at using “different types of plastic” or substitute materials. Nothing in the certification system calls on manufacturers to make or use recyclable or biodegradable plastics or improve production, Ledesma said. Credits “give all the plastic makers an excuse to continue their plastic production.”

ACC’s Dewing countered that “people say this is greenwashing. [But] this is not greenwashing at all. It is getting the plastic out of the environment and getting it to have value.” Plastic was littered all over the road before the ACC initiative became active, Dewing said. Now, she sees less of it.

A working paper issued last year by the International Solid Waste Association for the UN Environment Programme summed up the debate. It concluded that “plastic credit mechanisms can play a significant role within sustainable waste management systems, along with local and national policies such as producer responsibility schemes and waste prevention and reduction laws, but can also be a potential tool for greenwashing if not implemented properly. Plastic credits are not a long-term solution but rather a short-term remedy while we move to better waste and resource management systems.”

How representatives from the world’s nations will deal with plastic credits in the evolving UN plastics treaty negotiations is anyone’s guess.

This article first appeared on Mongabay and was originally written by Charles Pekow. It has been republished here under the Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) Creative Commons license.


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