Our long-lasting affair with plastic began over half a century ago when this material began to be mass-produced. Since then, plastic has found its way into nearly every industry and sector due to its versatility, durability, resilience, cost-efficiency and convenience it provides, being used in building and construction, transportation, textiles, consumer products, and many other fields. So, it comes as no surprise that plastic has become a staple for many businesses these days, whether it’s used in packaging, consumable goods or as a raw material for producing a broad range of items.
While the benefits that this versatile material provides can’t be denied, one can’t ignore the huge negative impact that plastic has on the environment. For a long time, the advantages of intense plastic usage seemed to outweigh the drawbacks, although governments, organisations and consumers were well aware of the issues it posed. But in recent years, concerns regarding climate change, global warming and the staggering pollution levels have made it abundantly clear that plastic use is an issue of ever-increasing urgency. And since businesses are major contributors to the plastic pollution problem, with almost 55% of the world’s plastic waste being generated by only 20 companies, it’s more important than ever for companies all over the world to take responsibility and address this issue.
Why should businesses reduce the use of plastic?
Plastic may seem innocuous, but its harmful effects on the environment are wide-ranging. It is estimated that of the total 9 billion tonnes of plastic that were produced between 1950 and 2017, almost 7 billion tonnes were disposed of in landfills. Single-use plastic items – the most ubiquitous of all plastics – are particularly damaging as they have a substantial contribution to global greenhouse emissions. Almost 98% of single-use plastic is made from virgin fossil fuels. Because of that, the manufacturing and disposal of these types of products release a huge amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, further exacerbating the climate crisis.
Apart from the negative effects stemming from production and incineration, the low plastic recycling rate also represents a major issue. Although many plastic items are marked as recyclable, less than 10% of the plastic produced globally gets recycled. Most of these products end up in landfill or polluting the world’s waters. As a result, thousands of animal species from all over the world are affected by plastic pollution as it disrupts their natural habitats. Many of them die after ingesting or getting entangled in plastic waste.
Humans are also suffering the consequences of living in a world that’s literally wrapped in plastic. Studies have shown that tiny plastic particles, also known as microplastics, which result from the production of the breakdown of plastic products, can enter the bloodstream via air, food, water, or personal care products. The possible health effects include the disruption of the endocrine system, damage to the organs, cytotoxicity, inflammation, etc.
There are more than enough studies proving that the use of plastic comes at a high cost for the environment, and that should be reason enough for businesses to reconsider their relationship with plastic. After all, protecting the health of the planet and the people is the right thing to do. But reducing plastic use also makes sense from a business perspective, since becoming an environmentally friendly company can improve brand equity, attract more investors, reduce costs associated with plastic waste disposal, and ensure compliance with plastic regulations.
What can businesses do to improve their plastic footprint?
Becoming a plastic-free company is a lot easier said than done when plastic is the main raw material employed in the manufacturing process, or when plastic products are used extensively in daily operations. For these companies, the first step forward would be to ramp up their recycling efforts. This might not solve the plastic pollution issue, but using recycled products and increasing recycling rates is still far better than supporting and perpetuating the production of virgin plastic polymers from fossil fuels. Also, thanks to tech advancements, recycling polystyrene and other plastic products that posed challenges for recycling and waste companies is much easier nowadays, so there’s no excuse for businesses to keep adding to the tons of plastic in landfills.
However, the better approach is to stop plastic at the source by avoiding plastic products where possible or reducing the amount of plastic and plastic-derived items used across all company levels. This requires businesses to assess their plastic usage and identify possible solutions to eliminate it. They can do that by appointing a person or a team that will collect the necessary information from all departments and compile the data in a report. Alternatively, businesses can schedule a plastic audit that will provide them with a clear understanding of their plastic usage and a plan to reduce it.
Another potential solution that companies should take into consideration is replacing plastic with other materials or finding suppliers that provide eco-friendly options. It all starts with researching and evaluating different options. For a business that relies heavily on plastic packaging, it might be possible to reduce usage by eliminating excessive packaging or by looking for more sustainable alternatives such as paper bubble wrap or biodegradable packing peanuts.
It’s difficult for any business, no matter how big or small, to reduce plastic use overnight. Fortunately, there are things that companies can do to address plastic pollution as they’re working their way toward more sustainable operations. Plastic offsetting is one of the measures that all companies can employ to neutralise their plastic footprint. This involves supporting different projects and organisations that work to reduce plastic pollution through regular investments.
Plastic pollution is a global problem that affects and concerns us all. If we don’t want to end up living on a planet entirely covered by plastic litter we must act now and find viable solutions to this ever-increasing issue. It’s definitely not going to be easy for businesses to reverse the damage that they have already done but it’s certainly possible to find better ways to operate from now on.