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The plastic industry abuses lifecycle analysis (LCA) in communication surrounding plastic pollution

Amsterdam, October 16th, 2019 – The much-praised method of lifecycle analysis (LCA) is regularly misused in the discussion surrounding plastic pollution. As a result, this widely used methodology to determine the environmental impact of products encourages the growth of plastic pollution, also known as the plastic soup. LCA does take into account the environmental impact of all life phases of a product, but unfortunately, it does not consider the damage that products cause when they end up in the environment.

A clash between theory and practice

The LCA is based on approximately 18 criteria: issues such as energy, material and water use, and climate impact are considered. These criteria are calculated from the entire lifecycle of a product — from the extraction of raw materials up to and including end-of-life (waste) processing. The idea behind the methodology is that it makes it easier to compare different products, materials, and production methods. The LCA is based on a controlled process, one which maintains the assumption that all products are collected, recycled, and reused in the end-of-life phase. The reality, however, is not that simple; plastic in the waste phase has little value, and recycling is complex. As a result, 79% of plastic worldwide ends up in landfills or the environment, as calculated by American scientists. The existence of plastic soup in our oceans is the obvious example of how this kind of negligence causes tangible damage. It is convenient for the plastic industry that the LCA method does not take the last phase of a product’s life into account. This is how plastic always manages to shine through as the most environmentally-friendly option for producers.

Plastic Truth vs Plastic Fable

The Dutch plastic industry recently launched the Plastic Truth versus Plastic Fable campaign. It concerns eight so-called market fables. The third declares that “all bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags”. Conversely, the following statement is put forward as a fact: “plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than other bags”. The LCA methodology forms the basis for this statement, but it does not take the leaching of plastic into the environment into account. In the environment, the plastic bag is far more harmful than the paper bag because plastic does not decay naturally.

Hard-to-measure criteria

The constant flow of plastic that ends up in the ocean every day is not taken into account in the LCA methodology. That can be explained; unlike issues such as energy, water, and material use, which can be measured during the production process, “plastic loss” is not easy to express in figures. For example, it is known that animals die because of plastic. But how can this be quantified? And what are the chances that one plastic bag left in the environment might result in the death of an animal? That’s not the only measurement problem — plastic crumbles into smaller and smaller pieces that enter the food chain, resulting in unknown effects on our health. But how should this be quantified both now and in the future?

Stop the abuse of lifecycle analysis to promote single-use plastic

Whenever single-use products are compared to each other using LCAs, the plastic option usually comes out on top. Despite this, we know that single-use plastic (SUP) is the largest contributor to the plastic soup. Industry must, therefore, stop using the current LCA method for promoting single-use packaging plastic in particular. In the meantime, a legitimate supplementary criterion that takes into account the impact plastic has once it inevitably reaches the environment should be agreed upon.

UNILEVER CLOSES THE PLASTIC TAP A LITTLE

Amsterdam, 9 October 2019 – Unilever, with more than 400 brands, promises to reduce the amount of plastic drastically by 2025. In addition, the group promises to halve the use of new (virgin) plastic and to increase the use of recyclates. Unilever sells products to more than 2.5 billion people in more than 190 countries and is one of the companies that contribute most to the plastics soup. The new CEO Alan Jope says “We need absolute urgency in turning off the plastic tap.” Will his measures really help in the fight against the plastic soup?

Less virgin and more recyclates

Unilever has announced two new targets for 2025:

  • Cutting the amount of virgin plastic in packaging to half its original size.
  • Collect and process more plastic than the company sells.

Unilever uses approximately 700,000 tonnes of virgin plastic per year. This quantity should be reduced to half by 2025, i.e. no more than 350,000 tonnes of virgin plastic will be used. The company wants to achieve this by using less plastic in the packaging (this will result in an expected reduction of 100,000 tonnes) on the one hand and by using more recycled plastic (250,000 tonnes) on the other. In total, this is 600,000 tonnes. On average, this means an absolute reduction of 100,000 tonnes. Unilever claims to be the first multinational to promise an absolute reduction in the use of plastic.

Refillable and packaging-free products

Less packaging plastic, other packaging materials, unwrapped ice cream, unpackaged soap, higher concentration of detergents, more reusable products, refillable products; the list of opportunities that Unilever can and wants to utilize is long. But there is still plastic left. It must be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Non-recyclable plastic will, therefore, be replaced by recyclable plastic.

Who controls?

In order to obtain recyclable plastic, plastic waste must be collected. Unilever will work with partners to collect plastic in areas where waste collection is lacking or poor. How much money is involved, how effective it is and how many of these initiatives there are and where remains unclear for the time being. In addition, Unilever will also pay directly for recycled plastic. However, this is worse in quality than virgin plastic and also much more expensive. This implies that the proposed approach is susceptible to fraud. Who will control Unilever?

Big challenge

The biggest challenge is undoubtedly the sachets or mini-packaging. The packaging consists of several layers. So far there has been one pilot plant, in Indonesia, which recycles these packaging with chemical recycling. This is a theoretical solution. After all, the mini-packaging is mainly sold in areas with little purchasing power. Unilever must, therefore, demonstrate that all these packagings are neatly collected and transported to factories yet to be built, while it is precisely in the sales areas that the garbage collection is in default.

Is absolute reduction a relative concept?

The absolute reduction of single-use plastic (SUP) is one of the pillars of the Plastic Soup Foundation. It is therefore fantastic that Unilever is the first multinational to announce an absolute reduction. Or is it? Multinationals like Unilever wants to grow. They are striving to sell more and more products. How exactly does that relate to the promise of absolute reduction of plastic?

Photo: Sachets, including from Unilever. Roshan P. Rai of Zero Waste Himalaya.

 

Read moreUnilever’s biggest polluter in the Philippines

Read alsoUnilever’s promised cuts to plastic are welcome… but it’s still not enough 

Read alsoUnilever vows to reduce the use of plastic packaging

 

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Cotton bread bag is becoming mainstream

Amsterdam, 31 October 2018 – The free plastic bag has been banned for a while now, but this is not the case for bakeries. Bread at the bakery or in the supermarket is generally still wrapped in plastic. A family consumes at least one loaf of bread per day. This means that approximately 365 plastic bags are used annually. The Netherlands counts almost 5 million multi-person households. A simple calculation shows that every year about 1.8 billion plastic bags are used. Just for bread. Just for multi-person households. Just in the Netherlands.

But there is an alternative. For a few years now, different sizes of the unprinted bread bag made of organic cotton, designed by Inge Barmentlo of Bag-again” have already been for sale online for a few euros. The bag can also be used for vegetables and fruits and is easy to close with a drawstring. Since two years, a bag marked with the text “Bread” has been available.

The concept of the bread bag has now been taken over by the Albert Heijn supermarkets, which have been selling a variant for a month. Selling the cotton bread bag in supermarkets is making it a mainstream product.

Inge Barmentlo: “I now get more requests from bakeries who want to start selling the bread bag, and I suspect that has to do with the AH-example. Although some pioneers have already been selling our bread bags for some time, I now have the idea that more companies are taking that step and also that the threshold is getting lower for consumers to take their own bread bag into a store or supermarket. I could never have dreamed this would happen when I started two years ago.”


Also read: India will abolish single-use plastics

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United Nations advises countries to take measures against plastic

 Amsterdam, June 5, 2018 –– Up to now, there have been no international agreements that compel countries to reduce their use of plastic. The most environmentally problematic form of plastic is single-use plastic (SUP). Despite the lack of an internationally binding agreement, countries have taken measures against SUPs themselves; they recognize the seriousness of the plastic pollution problem, and the issue has likely become intolerable for their citizens.

 Today, on World Environment Day, UN Environment has published an extensive review with an oversight of the measures that 50 nations have implemented up to now. Some of these measures are not effective because governments do not follow up on them.

The report, entitled Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap, gives a summary of the ten most effective steps countries can take. The UN recommends the following measures to governments around the world:

  1. Target the most problematic single-use plastics
  2. Consider the best actions to tackle the problem
  3. Assess the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts
  4. Identify and engage key stakeholder groups
  5. Raise public awareness
  6. Promote alternatives
  7. Provide incentives to industry
  8. Use revenues collected from taxes on single-use plastics to maximize the public good
  9. Enforce chosen measures effectively
  10. Monitor and adjust chosen measures if necessary and update the public on progress

Investment warning plastic packaging

Amsterdam, 9 May 2018 – For years the plastic industry was considered a safe investment. Good returns were ensured, because worldwide demand for plastic was only increasing. That image is quickly turning around as a result of governments announcing measures against plastic packaging, since plastic is damaging to the (maritime) environment. Moody’s, the leading advice agency for investors, released the rapport Plastic Packaging last month. It states that all impending measures to limit plastic packaging will have direct detrimental consequences for this industry. The companies will become less creditworthy.

Around 3 percent of the world oil consumption is used to make plastic packaging. British Petroleum is already changing their policy. Steve Dale, chief economist at BP, says in an article dedicated to this subject on bloomberg.com: “We think we’re going to see increasing regulation against some types of petrochemical products, particularly single-use plastics. As a result of that, we have less growth in non-combusted oils than we otherwise would have done.”

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “This is good news. The packaging industry is taking far too little initiative to take responsibility and reduce single-use plastic. Now that the market value of these companies is under pressure, we can expect to see this change.”

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Breaking news: EU announces tax on plastic

Amsterdam, January 12, 2018 —First there was a tweet. Gunther Oettinger, the EU commissioner for budget and human resources, wondered whether the European Union should impose a tax on the production of plastic for environmental reasons. Soon after, he gave a written explanation to journalists in — among others — this message. 

The European Commission wants to impose a tax on plastic in the entirety of the European Union in order fight pollution and to make use of the income it would provide. Due to Brexit, however, it has become more difficult to finalize such a measure. Another important reason for the implementation of this proposal is because, as of recently, China no longer imports waste plastic from Europe.

This is important news. 

There are two ways to do something in order to cut the use of plastic in practice, thereby lowering the accompanying environmental damage. The first is to prohibit certain applications of the material, such as the use of microplastics in personal care products. The second is to make plastic more expensive, for example by imposing a levy on production. At the moment, plastic is dirt cheap, which means that the cost of the pollution it causes is not included in the price. Because plastic is so cheap, it is massively used and preferred over other materials on the market. Practically every separate fruit is packaged in it. Single-use plastic dominates, and the subsequent damage — the plastic soup — appears on the front pages of the news more and more often. 

Up until now, producers and politicians maintained an entirely different approach; placing the burden on the consumer. People must be taught that plastic can no longer end up as litter. Already-used plastic must be recycled. Both these strategies leave the annual growth of plastic production undisturbed, and both offer no results. It seems to be an illusion that the plastic cycle can be closed completely (so that plastic doesn’t reach the environment); an entire population can hardly be raised to ensure that everyone neatly separates their waste and always tidies up after themselves.

Commissioner Oettinger does not yet know if the tax will fall on producers or consumers. Either way, the announcement is a milestone. We cannot lose time. By making plastic more expensive, both consumers as well as producers will deal with the material in a different way.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “We encourage a Europe-wide tax on plastic. This is a step in the right direction. Disposable plastic will be taxed, hopefully suggesting that its heyday is over”.