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Plastic Waste is Worth US$8 Billion a Year

As populations grow, plastic piles up. Roughly 85% of the plastic used in products and packaging is not recycled.  As much as this is a problem of increasingly critical dimensions, this is also a large, global opportunity.  

Estimates are that in the United States alone, over US$8 billion per year is “left on the table” from packaging waste that is not recycled. (1) At the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative, the Ocean Recovery Alliance announced the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) to take advantage of these opportunities. The goal of the program is to refocus the business community on seeing plastic not as a waste stream, but as a potential revenue stream.

The PDP offers guidance on developing plastic management strategies to create a world where plastic adds value to businesses without negatively impacting the environment. Rather than thinking of plastic as an easily thrown away material, the Project helps companies to find ways to use plastic more efficiently within a “closed-loop system” that leads to innovative practices and job creation.

If you measure it, you can manage it.  The first step is tracking and measuring the amount of plastic a company uses. The PDP is targeting companies and other institutions--universities, airports, stadiums, and municipalities--to measure their plastic footprint by tracking plastic use and waste creation every year.  

Once businesses and communities understand what their waste streams are vis-à-vis plastic, they can focus on what solutions can be deployed. Here are key areas:

   -reduce waste in the supply-chain manufacturing process, i.e., does everything need to be shrink wrapped when production is  done, simply to be sent to another warehouse?

    -increase recycling in the factory and office 

  -Increase recycling within the community of users. Can you create a strong bring-back program to engage your customers, bring them back through the door, and/or make use of your reverse-supply chain?

   -increase recycling and biodegradable content in the product (processing similar material batches together).

   -utilize new technologies to implement semi-processing or full-scale recycling with new technologies that can transform plastic into a new products,  such as woven fabrics or rigid durables to make in the form of furniture or sport products.

   -Aggregate waste materials via companies in the community who have similar waste streams, so that economies of scale can be created

   -Use new plastic-to-fuel technology that can create low sulfur fuel, to process any remaining material that is not readily recycled.  

According to an estimate by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 80% of the plastic and waste that ends up in our ocean comes from land.    

The beauty of this program is that it requires no laws or legislative changes, and can be used by a wide range of natural stakeholders who benefit from the improvement in water quality and less trash–such as the tourism industry, public health, agriculture and resource management. UNEP’s new “Global Partnership on Marine Litter” sees the PDP as a pillar program in their effort to reduce marine pollution because it can cut across borders and be used by all types of businesses, in all communities. 

Despite its short existence of two years, and the relatively limited exposure that PDP has to date on a global scale, companies in at least a dozen countries have already expressed interest in the project

Lush Cosmetics in the UK was the first to report. Though they pride themselves on being ahead of the industry on environmental issues, they still saw benefits in rethinking the question of how to recycle more of their plastic back into new containers. They also gained praise for stopping the use of glitter in their products. Paragon Communications, a leading electronics manufacturer in the United States, has also adopted the Plastic Disclosure reporting framework. 

When recycling is not possible, and after the easily recyclable material is removed, new plastic-to-fuel technologies offer an exceptional opportunity to re-liquefy plastic into a clean, low-sulfur diesel fuel, creating a large social benefit by permanently removing this waste material so that it does not have a chance to make its way to our rivers, waterways, and the ocean. 

Kids' Ocean Day, Hong Kong, Nov. 9th, 2012, Repulse Bay

In 2008, the Carbon Disclosure Project began to work with shareholders and corporations on greenhouse gas emissions. At that time, companies feared the increased transparency to the outside world, and the complexity in understanding what their carbon footprint might be. Today, however, companies are proud to announce their carbon footprint metrics, as they have found cost savings and efficiencies along the way that make them better at what they do. Becoming involved in the PDP and undergoing an annual plastic footprint analysis will have the same effect – bringing benefits to the companies and institutions that measure and manage their plastic use, and contributing to a long lasting positive impact on our environment for generations to come.  

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was told that the future of the world was in plastic. Today, that still holds true, but the future is in the proper management and reuse of plastic, so that none of it ends up in our ecosystem. Those who can work with the large inventory of plastic that we have already created in the previous decades, and which still exists, will be the new winners in this quest for brand recognition, and communal improvement. 


(1) The figure of US$8 billion comes from As You Sow, a project promoting environmental and social responsibility in corporations.