State of Green Business

Where does your waste plastic go? This guide can help businesses develop the details

Illustration of plastic waste
ShutterstockLebedeva Alena

In a few quick years, great momentum has built around a multitude of business efforts to advance a circular economy, particularly in plastic. Fears that plastic particles soon will outnumber fish in the ocean, for instance, have helped to boost efforts such as the New Plastics Economy commitment, by which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has enlisted 450 signatories pledging to eliminate plastic from becoming waste in the first place.

But how can anyone change what they can't see?

Only about 7 percent of all the plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled, according to a 2017 study. The vast majority of plastic objects and particles are lumped into landfills or scattered throughout ecosystems on water or land, and a small amount has been incinerated. Where exactly is all that plastic, and how did it get there?

The first big collaborative effort to get a clearer picture has shaped up in the form of the Plastic Leak Project guidelines, released in February. The chart-laden, 224-page guidelines were built to help companies quantify plastic waste from several key industries. The goal is to help businesses move beyond commitments and toward science-based action.

To develop this resource, it took a year of advisory firm Quantis working closely with Swiss ecodesign center EA and some 35 partnership organizations on a science-based approach to understanding where various types of plastic tend to wind up — including from products and packaging, textiles, runoff from tires on the road and pellet production.

"To us it’s the first step toward a plastic strategy because we know that before the Plastic Leak Project guidelines, these strategies, these decisions were based on assumptions rather than on science," said Laura Peano, the plastics lead and a senior consultant at Quantis in Switzerland. "We are happy to have reached this first step."

Not only does the report focus on marine pollution and other data, but it also provides a clearer picture of what happens with microplastics versus macroplastics, defined as greater than 5 millimeters long.

"The biggest findings are that today we can finally see how much plastic leakage is happening along the value chain, and in which states, in which countries," said Peano, who hopes that industries will adopt the data-driven guidelines suggested by the project. 

In a case study of Arla Foods, for instance, the project found that plastic leakage was pronounced in Nigeria, China and Bangladesh. The Scandinavian dairy company found that this leakage came primarily after disposal of its milk and cheese products, especially low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and laminate packaging.

The project’s deep dive for decision-makers, product designers and others includes plentiful abbreviations and definitions as well as calculation rules for loss, release and redistribution rates of plastic.

The goals include helping companies build resilience and uncover ways to innovate in their supply chains, as well as help them to demonstrate leadership and trust around their handling of plastic pollution.

"We've taken the latest science and built consensus among key sectors on a shared method for calculating plastic leakage," said Julien Boucher, director of ecodesign center EA, which partnered with Quantis on the Plastic Leak Project. "This actionable metric is a major step forward — it is the tool companies need to design better products and data-driven strategies to stop plastic pollution along their value chains."

Corporations involved include Adidas, Dow, McDonald's and Woolmark, alongside partners including the United Nations Environment Program, the World Business Council For Sustainable Development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Geographic Society and WWF. 

The numerous partners include experts who have been working to unravel the complexity of plastic waste for many years. Each stakeholder group collaborated on a regular basis with Quantis, both remotely and in-person, to provide data and share interpretations of findings. 

Among the surprises: Plenty of attention has been paid to how millions of tiny plastic fibers can leak from a simple polyester jacket from a clothes washer into the environment. But in a case study of a three-layer hard-shell jacket made by Sympatex Technologies, Quantis found that even more plastic leakage enters the waste stream at its end of life — noting hotspots in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Therefore, "more effort and investment should be directed towards finding ways to prolong the lifetime of the product," Peano said.

Peano described some limitations to understanding certain aspects of plastic waste flows. Those included getting reliable, compatible data around bioplastic degradation in the natural environment, largely because so many variables come into play, including temperature and humidity, and vary by location. Another point that future research might clarify is understanding how waste is exported, she said.

The data underlying the Plastic Leak Project, including technical guidelines that may require some expertise to understand, is publicly available and can be downloaded as an Excel file.