Like the CO2 offsets you can buy when renting a car, there's a burgeoning marketplace of credits that companies can purchase to offset their plastic use. But some environmental groups are cautioning against what they see as potential greenwashing among the programs.
The World Wildlife Fund and the Circulate Initiative jointly issued reports in late January calling the development of more than 30 such programs a positive sign that could drive investment in waste management but also warning that if not properly structured they could do more harm than good and "derail ... legitimate efforts on plastic waste."
Their reports came just ahead of another plastic credit program launching Feb. 10, this time from standards-setting organization Verra and the environmental coalition the 3R Initiative.
While not addressing the Verra-3RI program directly, WWF and TCI urged more work so the plastics credit programs in general could avoid problems seen in other areas.
"Not unlike the carbon counterpart for climate, plastic crediting activities can lead to misleading claims like 'plastic neutral' and other potentially misleading language around 'offsetting,'" according to a joint statement. "This language is especially dangerous when crediting is used in place of a more impactful plastic mitigation strategy."
One of the challenges they see is that there's no standard definition of a plastic credit. WWF and TCI define it generally as a transferable unit representing a quantity of plastic waste that could be bought and sold.
What their reports ask for is a fleshing out of details around the credit markets, and they outline a series of parameters, such as having companies focus on doing all they can to reduce their own plastics use before buying credits in the market.
"While we're encouraged by the possibility of a low-effort way for many companies to take action on the issue of plastic pollution, we must ensure this action is meaningful," the groups said in a statement from Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business for WWF, and Ellen Martin, an adviser to TCI.
"In this nascent stage of crediting development — before the point of widescale adoption — the plastic crediting value chain must course-correct to ensure that the development, implementation and adoption of credits are making transformational impact," they said.
They said they believe none of the more than 30 standards currently meet all 11 criteria they identified.
But the two organizations that announced their new credit and standard-setting programs Feb. 10, Verra and the 3R Initiative, see credits as a viable tool for companies that have already made strong moves internally.
In a statement, Verra argued it addresses a key WWF and CI concern because it requires companies to first prioritize their own reductions.
Verra said its efforts include stewardship guidelines and plastic waste reduction standards and called it the "world's first comprehensive framework to companies to verifiably manage and reduce plastic waste."
Verra said it provides guidelines to help companies substantiate their commitments and transparently quantify and report on them.
It suggested credits come after that, with the program "determining if and how plastic credits can credibly mitigate plastic leakage that companies cannot tackle themselves."
Its standard meets 10 of the 11 criteria outlined in the Circulate Initiative report, Verra said, and it plans to work on the other one, for policy impact, which it said it can't yet meet because its standard is new.
"We hope to work with WWF, TCI and other key organizations and government bodies to ensure that market-based approaches work with policy rather than against," Verra said.
WWF and TCI identified another concern around the credit programs, that they could threaten progress around emerging extended producer responsibility systems that require companies to take more financial responsibility for recycling their products.
"As governments adopt EPR policies, it remains to be seen whether voluntary credit schemes will support or threaten their progress," they said.
But Verra and 3RI said they see credits and standard-setting programs having a positive impact by creating incentives for companies to invest in recycling and waste management programs.
They said they developed their program in part in pilot projects in Indonesia, including working with Danone, Nestlé SA and Project Stop, a plastic waste management effort co-founded by resin producer Borealis AG.
"With less than 10 percent of the 350 million [metric] tons of plastic produced each year currently recycled, we face an unprecedented plastic pollution crisis which must be addressed," said Verra CEO David Antonioli. "If just 10 of the top plastic producers in the world adopted this new plastic stewardship initiative, it would remove more than 1 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked into the environment each year."