What is Plastic Neutrality and How Does it Work?

What is Plastic Neutrality and How Does it Work?

Plastic neutrality is a concept that has received less airtime than its carbon cousins. 

Net-zero targets, carbon footprints, and carbon neutrality have long been the yardsticks used to measure progress toward sustainability for companies and brands. As consumers and governments come to terms with the mounting global waste crisis, they’re getting more specific about measuring impact. 

Here’s what plastic neutrality actually means, why it’s important to get specific about plastic, and what it’ll take for your organization to become plastic neutral.

Want to find out how your brand can reduce plastic waste? Check out our guide on Capturing the Conscious Consumer, where you can find the benefits of how to introduce a sustainable strategy, advice on how to do this effectively, and ways CleanHub can help you with the transition.

 

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What is plastic neutrality? 

Plastic neutrality means that a business or individual has measured the amount of plastic they produce or use, then removed an equal amount from the natural environment. That plastic is then recycled, re-used, or disposed of responsibly. 

In other words: for every kilogram of plastic they discard or produce, a kilogram is recovered. In the process of “going neutral”, businesses can invest in waste management infrastructure, support recycling efforts, or use plastic credits to offset their impact.

 

 

 

 

Plastic neutrality's place in the wider waste crisis

It’s important to note that while plastic neutrality focuses on recovering material, it’s part of a wider effort to reduce plastic use overall. 

To stop plastic pollution in its tracks, two things need to happen. We need to:

  • Transition to circular packaging solutions and business models - this means ending our reliance on virgin and single-use plastics and investing in alternatives
  • Enable waste management in pollution hotspots - which is where plastic neutrality comes in.

Waste recovery efforts are a vital, final barrier between plastic and pollution. We face a rising tide, though. With global circularity falling to just 7.2% – and plastic production soaring to 400 million tonnes a year – it’s clear that fighting the plastic crisis means reducing the amount we use, just as much as the amount we recover. 

It’s the difference between treading water and swimming towards a finish line.

Why should businesses become plastic neutral?

While plastic neutrality and offsetting tackle the final stage of the waste value chain, its impact can be traced upwards through contributions to social welfare, reduced emissions, and as a source of recycled material for the circular economy. 

It’s unrealistic to expect businesses to completely abandon virgin plastic in the short term, but we need to start reducing our use of the material as soon as possible. Responsible plastic policies are increasingly becoming an expectation, rather than a “nice-to-have”:

Environmental impact

Plastic neutrality’s central mission is to prevent plastic from entering the oceans and other habitats. Once it reaches the natural environment, plastic begins to degrade.

Thanks to global warming, degradation is speeding up, which releases potent greenhouse gasses (GHGs). The more gasses that get released, the hotter the planet gets and the faster plastic breaks down. 

The phenomenon, known as the “negative feedback loop”, is one of the most dangerous links between plastic pollution and climate change. Offsetting through plastic credits slows that process by recovering material before it’s caught in the feedback loop.  

Want to learn more? Check out our page on How Plastic Pollution Impacts Climate Change.

Social welfare

The packaging your brand creates is most likely to end up in an open landfill, an incinerator, or the hands of a waste picker in a developing country. 

Even with the best intentions, we still struggle to recycle more than 10% of plastic around the world. EU countries export a massive amount of the remaining material to countries like Turkey, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia. Once there, it’s often processed informally, in life-threatening conditions. 

Plastic offsetting assigns a monetary value to the work of waste workers. Socially sensitive offsetting platforms direct that investment to at-risk waste workers. It’s used to ensure they’re paid a living wage, and receive safety training, social benefits, formalized employment contracts, and more. 

Regulatory pressure

With the waste crisis finally attracting attention at major climate summits, governments are taking plastic more and more seriously as a pollutant. They’re also looking to brands for accountability. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulation has been around for several decades in countries like Germany, but it’s spread to major markets like the UK and USA in recent years.  Most recently, EPR regulations were rolled out in the Philippines.

Along with the imminent arrival of Scope 3 ESG reporting, businesses are now being held accountable for the full impact of their products. Tracking your brand’s plastic footprint (and making a documented effort to reduce it) will soon be directly tied to your bottom line.

Consumer pressure

Like governments, consumers are beginning to reward brands for taking that responsibility. Around half of all buyers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands and products. 

As consumers become more aware of plastic and its impact on the environment, more and more of them are looking for companies whose values align with theirs. Concerns about plastic waste are growing amongst consumers, with one in two people in Europe stating that the amount of plastic being produced and entering the environment is a worry for them

Plastic bottles and other items littering a beach

 

How can businesses become plastic neutral? 

There are a few ways to go plastic neutral – or plastic neutral plus, if you want to make an even bigger impact.

Figuring out your footprint

In order to go neutral, you need to know how much plastic you’re producing and using in the first place. Conduct a plastic audit for your company to determine your footprint, taking everything from product packaging to office materials into account.

It’s a number you’ll likely have to account for in the next few years to meet EPR and ESG requirements, and it can’t hurt to get ahead of the game! Audits can also highlight opportunities to completely eliminate single-use plastic in favor of sustainable alternatives. 

Accounting for plastic can involve a lot of work – especially for larger brands, or smaller companies without dedicated sustainability teams. Get a general idea of your footprint using a calculator, or partner with plastic recovery experts to help figure out how much you produce and use.

Removing single-use packaging from the equation 

Some companies go plastic neutral by introducing a closed-loop waste model. Businesses like Kiehl’s have introduced rewards programs that encourage customers to return their plastic packaging so it can be repurposed.

Others use recycled plastic for the majority of their packaging, or forego the material altogether. At Lush, for example, well over half of the core product range is “naked” – in other words, it’s not packaged at all. 

 

Returning plastic to the circular economy 

Organizations like ours help brands to fund plastic waste recovery, track the amount they’re offsetting, and share their plastic neutrality with customers – right down to the gram.  

Investing in recovery is as simple as deciding how much plastic you produce. Choose the right plastic recovery organization, and they’ll do all the rest of the work for you. 

At CleanHub, for example, we work with local collection partners in countries like Indonesia, India and Cambodia to retrieve the equivalent amount of plastic before it can enter the environment. Every stage of our recovery process is completely transparent – we can track and trace exactly what was recovered, where, and by whom. 

By investing in neutrality, brands are also investing in the people recovering waste on their behalf, the material needed to reduce our reliance on virgin plastic – and ultimately, in the environment.   

Want to find out how your brand can reduce plastic waste? Check out our guide on Capturing the Conscious Consumer, where you can find the benefits of how to introduce a sustainable strategy, advice on how to do this effectively, and ways CleanHub can help you with the transition.

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