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Effects of Plastic Pollution, the Importance of Plastic Offset Programs

plastic offset programs

The effects of plastic pollution span each and every crevice of our planet, creating a unique need for plastic offset programs. Experts agree that the key to sustainability is reducing our impact on the planet. When it comes to things like carbon output and plastic waste, we all must do what we can to reduce these as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the modern world depends on a lot of things that aren’t good for our planet. Plastic waste is a daily reality. We accrue waste through online shopping orders, food deliveries, groceries, and more. The pandemic exacerbated the issue as online shopping became commonplace, greatly increasing our consumption of single-use plastic—an estimated 250 – 300% more than pre-pandemic. Now, we are still dealing with the consequences.

Even if the end game is to eliminate plastic waste entirely, we need to come up with ways to address the plastic waste we are currently creating. Communities across the world are drowning in plastic waste. Even if we discover a solution to the effects of plastic pollution tomorrow, we are still left with tons of mismanaged plastic waste today. In fact, nearly every piece of plastic ever created still exists today. 

Plastic offsetting may provide the answer. 

Introduction to plastic offsetting

Offsetting exists as a way to allow companies to take responsibility for their environmental footprints. It shouldn’t be used as a way to continue the same habits as usual. Rather, offsetting is available to compensate for the parts of your footprint that cannot yet be removed from operations. Plastic offsetting, therefore, provides a way for companies to fund projects that recover mismanaged plastic waste from the environment.

What is plastic offsetting and how does it work?

Similar to carbon offsetting, plastic offset programs remove mismanaged plastic waste from the environment—rescuing it from shores and waterways before it becomes marine plastic—or retrieving it from our oceans. Companies can purchase plastic credits in the amount that they want to take responsibility for (e.g. one credit for one ton of plastic waste), and the credits pay for projects to remove an equivalent amount of plastic waste from the environment. It works in three steps:

  1. Measure the amount of plastic waste associated with company operations as well as the operations of its supply chains. This includes plastic components, packaging, internal plastic use, and so on. This step must be comprehensive and clear. Ideally, it should be done by a third party to ensure unbiased measurement.
  2. Reduce plastic waste associated with operations as much as possible. Some ways to reduce plastic waste include asking staff to bring reusable bottles, eliminating plastic packaging, and encouraging your supply chains to do the same.
  3. Recover the plastic waste that you cannot remove from operations. Once you have reduced the plastic waste as much as you can, you will re-measure your plastic footprint, and purchase plastic credits amounting to your remaining footprint. These credits will then be used to fund plastic offset programs that will recover an equal amount of plastic waste from the environment. 

plastic offset programs

Is plastic offsetting a reliable solution to plastic pollution?

Similar to carbon offsetting, plastic offsetting is not the solution to plastic pollution. Rather, it allows us to address the existing issue while coming up with additional solutions to end plastic waste. That being said, plastic offsetting can be more than a placeholder. Done correctly, it can empower vulnerable communities and allow us to recover plastic waste leakage as we determine a better way forward. 

The importance of plastic offsetting in the fight against pollution

Offsetting programs, including plastic offsetting, exist as a way to take responsibility for the aspects of our footprints that we cannot yet address. Plastic offsetting allows companies to take responsibility for plastic packaging, plastic components, and other plastic materials associated with its operation.

This is incredibly important as plastic pollution continues to rise. The effects of plastic pollution are many and shocking. Most of us already know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a giant mass of trash and plastic waste floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But, issues like this only scratch the surface. Plastic pollution brings disease and food shortages to marginalized communities, and microplastics have been discovered in human breast milk. Although the consequences of these discoveries are not yet known, it’s clear that plastic pollution poses an imminent danger.

Effects of plastic pollution: causes and consequences

Although marginalized communities are the most affected by plastic pollution, especially those living along polluted rivers and coastlines, everyone is impacted by mismanaged plastic waste. 

Alarmingly, microplastics were found in 90% of bottled water, according to the WHO. Furthermore, the fish we eat ingests dump trucks worth of plastic waste, which impacts our food and eliminates sealife. Plastic waste isn’t just a health matter but an economic one as well. In Cape Town, South Africa, for example, it was found that just two pieces of litter were enough to deter 85% of potential visitors from going to the beach. This is especially impactful on vulnerable communities that are covered in plastic waste that could benefit from tourism if they weren’t struggling with plastic pollution. 

But, where does all this plastic waste come from? In 2019, almost 460 million tons of plastic was produced. Comparatively, as little as 50 years before that, only around 8 million tons of plastic was produced annually. Of that plastic waste, only a fraction is recycled—about 9% globally. Twenty-two percent of plastic waste is mismanaged. The rest is incinerated or placed in a landfill.

Mismanaged plastic waste refers to plastic that’s inadequately disposed of, increasing its risk of entering our oceans and becoming marine plastic. Although this happens globally, it’s most common in areas where waste management is informal. In these areas, local communities often need to pay to have their household waste removed, so they are left with little choice but to burn their trash or throw it in unmanaged landfills that leak into the environment.

In these areas, the plastic pollution problem is often exacerbated by the day-to-day lifestyles of those within these communities. They depend upon single sachets of shampoo, laundry detergent, and other necessities, which adds to their plastic waste. Communities along rivers or coastlines have the additional problem of waste floating down the rivers and accumulating along shorelines. This waste piles up, exposing them to disease and chemicals while killing marine life, much of which they depend on for food and income. 

It’s clear that, although this issue affects everyone, those in vulnerable communities see the real and dangerous effects of plastic pollution on a daily basis. This is why the bulk of plastic offsetting projects appear in the vulnerable communities of developing countries. An effective plastic offsetting program will not only remove plastic waste from these areas before it becomes marine plastic, but it will also support and empower community members.  

The basics of plastic offsetting

Just like any offsetting program, plastic offsetting needs to adhere to certain standards in order to be viable. It cannot allow a company to continue as usual. Rather, it must be an additional measure that’s certified, standardized, and comprehensive.

Defining plastic offsetting and its objectives

A solid plastic offsetting program will have the following indicators:

  1. Certified by a third party. Just like everything surrounding sustainability, third-party verification is a must. This ensures companies investing in the plastic credit exchange that their plastic waste is actually being offset. 
  2. Supportive of the communities in which they work. Plastic waste removal isn’t just about rescuing plastic before it’s lost to the ocean. It’s also about empowering local communities. A solid plastic offset program will provide education, employment, and other means of support to community members in addition to alleviating the effects of plastic pollution.
  3. Additionality. Plastic offset programs do not exist as a way to allow companies and individuals to continue as they always have. Projects funded by plastic credits need to go beyond what is already being done to reduce plastic waste. For example, it cannot only remove recyclable plastics from the environment. All plastics must be removed, then they need to be eliminated in the most sustainable way possible.

How can individuals contribute to plastic offsetting efforts?

Individuals who are interested in reducing their environmental footprint can calculate their footprint and invest in carbon or plastic offsetting programs in order to compensate for their impact. Just as with companies, individuals who choose to do this should also seek to minimize their plastic usage and invest in credit systems as a way to take responsibility for the plastic waste that they cannot remove from their lives. 

Another way to contribute to offsetting efforts is by supporting companies that offer the chance for eco-friendly online shopping carts or the ability to offset via Shopify. Just make sure that businesses that offer these services are also doing what they can to reduce their footprint, too.

What are the potential long-term benefits of widespread plastic offsetting?

Although plastic removal projects do not solve plastic pollution, they offer a way for individuals and companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint. Plastic offsetting programs bring much-needed aid to vulnerable communities that are drowning in plastic waste but do not have the resources to clean their communities. Widespread plastic offsetting can not only provide relief to these communities but can also greatly diminish the amount of ocean-bound plastic in the environment.

plastic offset programs

Plastic offsetting methods and initiatives

A key challenge of plastic offsetting is eliminating plastic waste in a sustainable manner. 

Recyclable plastic, also called value plastic, can be sold to recycling centers where it will be remade into another product. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of plastic can be recycled, even if it’s made of recyclable materials. This is because contamination affects whether or not a piece of plastic can be recycled. Plastics that have foodstuff or dyes in them are often thrown into landfills, even if they were set aside for recycling.

Because of this, plastic offsetting programs must be innovative about the elimination of the plastic that they collect. Some circular approaches include the chemical recycling of plastics, which turns plastic materials into building blocks, or co-processing, which converts plastic waste into energy and raw materials.

Evaluating the effectiveness of plastic offsetting

Effective plastic offsetting programs remove tons of plastic waste from vulnerable areas before it becomes marine plastic. Not only this, but they can improve local communities by employing their people and providing waste management systems in areas where it’s left to the private sector. Let’s take a look at some examples of plastic offset programs that are working to minimize the effects of plastic pollution.

CleanHub

Location: Indonesia, India, Cambodia, and Tanzania

Tons of plastic removed (as of June 2023): 2,719

One of our past partners, CleanHub, works in vulnerable communities around the world to remove plastic waste before it becomes ocean plastic. They work with local communities to provide jobs, collect plastic in areas where there is no formal waste collection system, and rescue plastic waste before it is lost to the ocean, where it’s difficult to retrieve. They then use the collected plastic waste in a circular manner by converting it into energy. Through their projects, they support local communities by creating jobs, preventing further pollution through waste collection, and eliminating this plastic in the most environmentally friendly way possible. 

TONTOTON

Location: Vietnam and Cambodia

Tons of plastic removed (as of June 2023): 2,513

TONTOTON works in coastal communities in Vietnam and Cambodia where formal waste management systems do not exist. They create value in a few different ways. Firstly, they pay competitive wages to local community members for the collection of trash in the area. They also provide personal protective equipment, training, and access to healthcare, which were previously unavailable to them. On top of this, they work with community leaders to provide education on the dangers of plastic pollution, and they provide trash receptacles to individual households so that they can sort their plastic waste from their everyday trash. They will then purchase the plastic waste from these households to incentivize sorting and collection. Once the plastic waste is collected, they eliminate it in the most sustainable way possible, depending on the type of plastic waste. 

RePurpose

Location: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Kenya, India, Indonesia

Tons of plastic removed (as of June 2023): 14,881

A leading plastic offsetting company, RePurpose works in vulnerable communities around the world to remove plastic waste. Their projects engage local waste pickers to help them in their important work, invest in plastic waste management innovation, and protect ecosystems. Beyond plastic recovery, they also work with their partners to measure their current plastic footprint and create ways to minimize it. In this way, their approach is truly comprehensive: working to eliminate plastic waste at its source while creating projects that remove mismanaged waste from the environment.

Challenges and controversies of plastic offsetting

Plastic offsetting is not without its challenges. Critics of offsetting, in general, claim that these types of programs allow businesses and individuals to continue their unsustainable approaches while claiming environmental friendliness. They say that the focus should be on eliminating plastic waste rather than offsetting it.

The truth is that they are not fully wrong. The focus does need to be on eliminating plastic waste and pursuing innovations for circular waste management. However, something does need to be done about the plastic waste that has already leaked and continues to leak into the environment. Plastic offsetting allows us to do that while creating ways to eliminate plastic waste leakage completely and minimize the effects of plastic pollution.

Addressing concerns about greenwashing and transparency

Companies that choose to invest in offsetting programs in order to compensate for their plastic footprint must be very careful to avoid greenwashing. Offsetting programs are not a permanent solution to environmental issues. You cannot simply invest in a plastic offsetting program and then market yourself as green.

Here are some ways to avoid greenwashing when investing in offsetting programs:

  • Make sure that you have eliminated as much plastic from your operations as possible before offsetting with credits. The primary goal is plastic waste elimination. You should only resort to offsetting when you have reached the limits of what your company can accomplish.
  • Create measurable goals to continue to reduce your plastic waste.
  • Go above and beyond. You don’t have to limit yourself to purchasing plastic credits in the amount that you need to offset. Plastic leakage occurs at an alarming rate, and it needs to be addressed. Do more by investing more, and take responsibility for more.

Are there any alternatives to plastic offsetting for combating plastic pollution?

The key to combating plastic pollution will always be the elimination of plastic waste. The first and foremost goal of companies and individuals alike should be reducing plastic waste overall. This is the only way to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic offsetting simply offers a way to address the current issue. However, offsetting will never solve climate issues. They serve as a reaction to pollution in order to minimize its effects. 

What role can governments play in supporting plastic offsetting?

Plastic offsetting means nothing if it’s not combined with regulations and funding to support technology for circular plastic waste management and the reduction of plastic waste overall. Furthermore, offsetting programs need standardization. While we can follow frameworks like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and reputable offsetting programs do, a lack of standardization means that it’s all too easy for companies to invest in unreputable programs. 

Unfortunately, governance tends to be slow, and we cannot wait for government support to address these issues. Instead, businesses should do their part by thoroughly researching plastic offsetting programs and ensuring that their plastic credits are truly making a difference.

Plastic offsetting moves us toward positive change

Plastic offsetting, like carbon offsetting, gives individuals and companies a chance to take responsibility for their plastic footprint. As long as plastic exists, all stakeholders must do their part to take responsibility for the waste that leaks into the environment. There are many communities across the world whose daily struggles include problems with the effects of plastic pollution. We all have a responsibility to offset that issue.

But, we can’t stop at plastic offsetting. Sustainability requires a comprehensive approach, and we need to take responsibility for all aspects of our environmental footprint, including carbon. If you take your role within Corporate Social Responsibility seriously, then all facets must be explored. Company decision-makers must do what they can to reduce their footprint and offset the areas that they can’t. This is the only way that we will enjoy a sustainable future for all.

Tired of navigating the complexities of sustainability options? Connect with our team, to learn how you can transform your ecommerce experience. 

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