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Emissions offsetting has been around for a couple decades and is still mired in complexity, technical uncertainty, regulatory limbo and general confusion (check out our podcast series “Carbon Credits Today: Separating the Signal from the Noise”). So of course it makes perfect sense to build on it. Bloomberg recently wrote about the world of plastics offsets, plastics neutral and net zero plastics claims (“New Plastics ‘Offsets’ Point to Next Frontier in Controversial Green Claims“). Unlike carbon offsets – which represent an amount of CO2 removed from or not emitted in the atmosphere – plastic offsets are based on recycling rather than elimination; they “represent a ton of plastic waste collected and processed by a third party elsewhere in the world” rather than avoided.

According to the article:

“As of now, the market for plastic offsets is small and dominated by the four-year-old Plastic Credit Exchange of Singapore-based PCX Markets. But it’s poised to grow, as industry bodies lobby for the inclusion of plastics credits in a new binding global treaty on plastic pollution under negotiation this week in Nairobi. Among those are carbon credits stalwart Verra, which has its own nascent plastic-credits program.”

An investigation by SourceMaterial that is cited in the article “found that more than 80 per cent of the plastic collected by PCX’s programme, marketed as ‘meaningful, credible and sustainable’, is delivered to cement manufacturers who burn it for fuel” and “just 14 per cent of PCX credits are generated from recycling. The remainder are from ‘co-processing’, which … involves burning plastic with coal to fuel cement production.”  Sounds like the controversy about burning biomass as a climate solution (substituting for fossil fuel) – which itself just erupted into a new kerfluffle in the UK.

Leaning on plastics offsets just doesn’t seem reasonable – or safe as a corporate strategy. It’s more like a ticking time bomb for an explosion of lawsuits. The better way to manage your company’s plastic risk is to reduce or eliminate its use as much as possible or find alternative materials. I’m not saying it’s easy – after Lego invested in alternative material research, they determined it wasn’t workable for their products. There may be low hanging fruit in riding elimination and recycling opportunities that present minimal business risk with a good upside. But it’s probably best to avoid plastic offsets.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile