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Plastic credits are the newest kind of pollution offset—but do they make a difference?

In their attempts to go “plastic neutral,” some companies are paying to clean up plastic from nature. But does that mean anything if it just gives them license to make more plastic themselves?

Plastic credits are the newest kind of pollution offset—but do they make a difference?
[Source Image: happyphoton/iStock]
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One factor at the core of our climate crisis is excess: We’re producing too many carbon emissions, more than our atmosphere can handle. We’re creating too much single-use plastic, more than can be recycled. This excess has reached dangerous levels. Our planet has just 9% of its global carbon budget left, and each year, 8 million tons of plastic makes its way into our oceans. 

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To combat all this excess, companies can try to simply produce less, but these excesses can be hard to remove entirely from a business model. When a company can’t reduce, there are offsets or credits, which create a market for the effort to reduce these pollutants. When an organization does something that would reduce carbon, like planting trees, they can sell that benefit to a company looking to effectively reduce their emissions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol standardized carbon credits: each credit would represent one metric ton of CO2. That protocol also created different types of credits, from emission trading—when one country hasn’t emitted as much pollution as they’re “allowed” to, they can sell the left over amount to countries that have already passed their emission targets—to removal units, which use things like reforestation to remove CO2.

Now, the concept of credits are moving beyond emissions to one of the other most pressing forms of pollution: plastic. But while the idea of buying and selling plastic pollution credits is gaining traction, no standards like the Kyoto carbon credit standards exist. Instead, there’s a hodgepodge of different types of plastic removal, and different types of plastics, making environmental experts concerned about whether any promises that a company makes about being  “plastic neutral” can be taken at face value if they involve credits.

What is being credited?

At its most basic, a plastic credit is a “transferable unit representing a specific quantity of plastic that has been collected and possibly recycled from the environment,” according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which recently put out a paper on plastic credits. The credit could just be for the removal of some material from the environment—one ton of plastic picked up from a beach, for example—or it could be for a certain amount of plastic recycled, or both.

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A group that is already collecting plastic could sell credits to make more money, and so once that plastic is collected and a credit on it is issued (usually through a third party), a brand or company could buy that credit to count that removed or recycled plastic against its total plastic footprint. Organizations like the Plastic Bank or rePurpose also sell plastic credits in order to fund investments in better recycling infrastructure or new efforts to collect plastic pollution.

That’s how plastic credits work in theory, but there are a lot of issues to be worked out, says Alix Grabowski, deputy director of plastic and material science at WWF, which only began working on this issue of plastic credits about a year ago. “It is really an emerging issue,” she says. Because they’re so new, there isn’t yet a sense of how many companies are buying credits. The Circular Action Hub is one of the only public credit marketplaces those in the field are aware of, and it currently has about 90 projects—ranging from waste collection by fishermen in Brazil to plastic film recycling in Myanmar—though it’s not clear how many credits have been purchased.

The Circulate Initiative, a nonprofit affiliated with the ocean plastic prevention firm Circulate Capital, recently evaluated 32 plastic crediting programs that set labels for recycled material (like “circular” or “ocean plastic”) or generate offsets for collected or recycled plastic, but not all of those programs yet have commercial operations; some are still in trials or just described on paper. (One program called Parley for the Ocean has been used by Adidas, the report notes, with Parley Ocean Plastic used in shoes and fabrics for the brand.) And even among these, there’s no standard for how those plastic credit claims are defined or carried out.

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“It’s local, it’s physical, and it’s branded.”

There’s one big difference between plastic credits and carbon credits, Grabowski says: “Plastic is a physical object that you can see and touch, and its impacts, especially as plastic pollution, are very localized.” Whereas our planet has a global carbon budget, and any carbon that is offset helps that global goal, “plastic is different,” she says. “It’s local, it’s physical, and it’s branded.” Picking up a ton of plastic doesn’t mean you can should create a new, different ton of plastic. And for the people who picked it up, questions remain, as well: Were they going to collect that waste anyway? Has the company used the plastic credit to pick up any additional material, or make any more of an impact, besides what an organization was already doing?

The type of material matters, too. When flexible plastic, food wrappers, and plastic bags are the most common polluters, is a company only buying credits for which bottles have been picked up and recycled? And, does that company even produce plastic bottles? “We don’t think it’s okay for someone to invest in bottle pick up and recycling, and then claim that it offsets their sachets,” the small flexible plastic packs—for shampoo samples, ketchup packets, or snack bags—that are incredibly difficult to collect and recycle, Grabowski says. That credit isn’t then offsetting the waste that company is putting into the world; WWF says plastic claims should be relevant, and not “distract from a company’s most detrimental impacts on the climate.”

Because the plastic credit marketplace is so new, there aren’t any marketplace-wide or international standards for how to certify credits, and different crediting programs operate with different definitions, which all leaves space for greenwashing. For carbon credits, though the term may seem vague, there is a standard: One carbon offset credit equals one metric ton of CO2. For plastic credits, there’s not.

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And while the term “ocean plastic,” used by so many programs, seems straightforward, it isn’t. Of those 32 programs evaluated by The Circulate Initiative, 11 offered claims or credits specifically for ocean plastic, but there was no consensus about what “ocean plastic” means. Does it “100%” come from the ocean, as the Ocean Cleanup says, or does the term also encompass “material collected from communities with no formal waste management within 50 kilometers of the shoreline,” as Oceanworks defines its averted ocean plastic? There’s also the phrase “ocean bound” plastic, which Ocean Bound Plastic Certification defines as “plastic waste that is not managed correctly and is abandoned in the environment where it will be transported to the oceans either by rain, wind, tides, river flow, or floods.” This plastic is currently on land and so doesn’t include any plastic pollution from marine activities.

What a good credit could look like

Ellen Martin, chief impact officer of the Circulate Initiative, says they were conscious to not pick winners in their report, partly because this field is so new. “If a plastic credit program or new standard has just come out, we don’t have the answers yet about whether or not they’ve met [all of our] best practices, because it’s too soon.” Those best practices include suggestions that programs harmonize with other standards, cover multiple continents, and that they include methodology to show that the impact of that credit wouldn’t have happened without that program.

If done well, plastic credits could actually drive investment and funding into waste management and recycling infrastructure, because the money spent on credits is then going to organizations that recycle these materials, or even to build new recycling programs. But still, they have to consider the full impact of how they go about this. “The co-benefits that are created alongside tracking and managing plastic needs to be complemented with a deeper understanding of the impacts on climate, on livelihoods . . . and whether it’s truly adding value at a systems level for more circular economies,” she says.

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That livelihoods element is crucial. In places where the “informal sector” is often collecting a lot of the plastic material used in offsets, it’s not always clear how those individuals will benefit from an opportunity like a plastic credit. Similarly, WWF says plastic crediting programs have to have a social component, alongside that environmental one. “What we don’t want to see happen is that companies are making sustainability claims based off credits where the people who are actually collecting the plastic aren’t making a living wage or don’t have the correct safety equipment,” Grabowski says.

This is where programs need to comply with other certifications; both WWF and The Circulate Initiative say programs should follow best practices from ISEAL, a global membership organization that sets sustainability standards. And, these crediting programs need to be paired with government action and new international policies, so that there’s a way to hear from workers on the ground, transparency at every step, and these voluntary programs aren’t just being used to skirt that kind of oversight.

Circularity over offsets

Ultimately, both WWF and The Circulate Initiative say we should be striving for more circular systems that don’t introduce new plastic at all. Neither has put their stamp of approval on a plastic crediting program. In February, Verra and the 3R Initiative launched their Plastic Waste Reduction Standard which issues plastic credits for material that is both recovered and recycled and does adhere to ISEAL’s best practices. Grabowski served on its development committee and says it’s promising, but she noted it still doesn’t meet all of WWF’s criteria. That initiative uses terms like “net-zero plastic pollution” and “net circular,” which she says are in the same bucket as “plastic neutral,” a claim that WWF does not support based on plastic credits.

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What companies should be focusing on is changing their business models more fundamentally, which is why plastic credits and offsets alone aren’t enough to solve our plastic problem; they have to come alongside efforts from a company to change what they’re producing, to use recycled materials, and to become circular. “[Plastic] doesn’t have to go to nature in the first place,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to balance it out. We should stop it.”