Plastic Offsets: A Flawed Solution or a Step in the Right Direction?

March 23, 2023

Under the influence of the viral carbon credit market, plastic offsets were developed as new solutions for businesses to address their plastic footprint. However, similar to carbon offset, plastic offset has sparked a series of debates about whether it can provide us with a sustainable future. 

As a purpose-first company, we have been seeking ways to take care of the plastic packaging we use. After thorough consideration, Relocalize decided to support the plastic recovery project run by offsetting organizations. But instead of seeing it as complete compensation for our plastic footprint, we see it as part of our strategy to achieve a circular economy. In the following, we would like to share our rationale for taking a pioneering stance in this controversy over plastic offset. 

Plastics are Re-entering Our Lives

Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues facing humanity and the planet today. This is a fact that few would debate, with 400 million metric tons of plastic produced annually (equivalent to the weight of 12,000 Empire State Buildings), with most ending up in landfills and the environment. In fact, globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, with 22% being mismanaged and the rest being sent to landfills. 

Plastics have not only entered the environment but are also making their way back into our lives. From the poles to mountains and the abyss, these man-made pieces kill animals and enter our food chain. 

Research suggests that plastic can be found in drinking beverages, seafood, and even ambient air. According to the WWF, the amount of plastic we eat in one week is roughly equivalent to the size of a credit card. Scientists also found evidence that plastic can be found in human stool and blood

No one exactly knows how this would affect our health. Yet, I guess none of us would agree we should eat more plastic. We must reduce our plastic consumption and solve this crisis. 

Are Offsets a Viable Solution?

Plastic offsetting is a relatively new solution for companies to take responsibility for their contribution to the plastic problem. Inspired by carbon offsets, plastic offsets take a similar approach. People and companies continue to consume plastic, but invest in plastic recovery projects to offset the negative environmental impact of this use. 

Companies seeking to be recognized for sustainability then have the option of  earning a “Plastic Neutral” or “Plastic Negative” Certification. 

Relocalize is primarily focused on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by revolutionizing the logistics of the food supply chain. Our hyper-local micro-factories reduce transportation emissions by shortening supply chains and eliminating middle-mile transportation. We are tackling the CO2 problem head-on using a simple and straightforward decarbonization strategy. 

But we also use plastic, and this bothers us. Plastic offset is one solution that we believe might be a “good enough” for now while we look for alternatives to plastic in the long term.

Offsetting is already a common practice for GHG reduction, but it is not without controversy among businesses and environmental advocates. So let’s look at carbon offsets, the big brother of plastic offsets, to try to understand if they are a viable solution to our plastic problem. 

Lesson Learned from Carbon Offset

Neutrality has become a buzzword in the market over the past few years. In general, carbon neutrality is often achieved through carbon offsets.

Today, many businesses use carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality, such as planting trees, installing renewable energy, or capturing greenhouse gasses. The approach is based on the theory that the carbon a company liberates at one place can be offset by the carbon it collects at another place. Given that the liberation and removal of carbon take place in the same atmosphere, mathematically,

(The amount of carbon emitted) - (The amount of carbon removed) = 0 = neutrality.

In a good sense, offsets channel funds toward conservation and sustainable development. It helps developing countries that desperately need a budget to finance their carbon reduction projects. Furthermore, it also allows companies that have low energy consumption (e.g., software companies) or limited options to reduce carbon emissions (e.g., shipping companies) to make an effort. There are many effective projects that have been funded using the carbon offset concept. 

Nevertheless, fraud and overestimation of the project’s offsetting performance have become major concerns. Despite the fact that the regulation of carbon offsets has improved tremendously, the benefit provided by some carbon removal projects remains questionable. Multiple projects were only able to deliver half or even none of the committed carbon reduction targets. For instance, one of the leading voluntary carbon offset certifiers was just found selling “ingenuine” projects.

Something strange also starts to emerge in the market: fuel companies keep selling fossil fuels while claiming to be carbon neutral at the same time. Given that the fuel companies can now offset the carbon emissions, they can now pay to achieve "neutrality” while maintaining or even increasing production at the same time. A recent study suggested that the fuel companies continuously pledge to become “net-zero emissions," but there is no financial evidence indicating there is a shift in reliance on fossil fuels. 

Many environmental advocates suggest that carbon offsets do not promote the reduction of carbon emissions from individuals or companies. They argue that offsets have become an excuse for companies to escape their responsibilities. 

The Controversy of Plastic Offset

The carbon offset debate is likely to repeat with controversies arising in discussions on plastic offsets.

Given that plastic offset is still a fairly new concept, the industry defines it as "for every amount of plastic created, a measured equivalent of plastic waste is recovered, removed, or prevented from entering the environment by an individual or company through recycling/waste management efforts or plastic offset credits." We could expect the math to look somewhat like this,

(Plastic produced) - (Plastic recovered from nature) = 0 = neutrality. 

Plastic offsetting channels more funding to remove plastic from nature. The environment is already piled high with plastic. The funding can be used to upscale the plastic recovery operation from nature. From a global perspective, it also helps countries that are under a serious threat from plastic pollution. Many developing countries in Asia or Africa lack proper waste collection or treatment infrastructure. Eventually, plastic waste drifted into nature from open landfills and many other sources. Offset programs could help support local communities to clean up their environment and set up proper infrastructure.

Yet, plastic pollution cannot be eliminated solely by recovering marine debris. As you can see from the calculation, plastic offset excludes the damage that the plastics may have already done to the environment before they were picked up. These plastics may have blocked the digestive systems of some birds, which starved them to death before the plastic got picked up. 

We need to stop that tap from pouring plastic into the environment. We need a transition toward a circular economy in which the use of virgin plastic is reduced, reusable products are promoted, the rate of recovery and recycling is increased, and leakage to the natural environment is eliminated.

A circular economy model for plastic by WWF

Plastic Offset as an Imperfect but Worthy solution

Relocalize has been striving to minimize the plastic usage in our operation. Our team is fully aware of the need to make our products circular. Yet time is ticking while we are exploring practical solutions that are scalable, economically viable, and truly sustainable. We want to be environmentally responsible as soon as possible while researching ways to improve our products.

As an immediate response to this urgent threat of plastic pollution, we support the plastic recovery project carried out by rePurpose Global. rePurpose Global‘s ecosystem of solutions allows companies to invest in critical waste management infrastructure and empower grassroots waste management innovators.  Under the partnership with global businesses and local operators in 3 continents, rePurpose Global has recovered over 13,500,000 kilos of plastic waste to date. 

With the aim to create a steep impact, Relocalize pledged for the highest certification, “Plastic Negative”, offered by rePurpose Global. This partnership recovers “twice as much plastic waste as we use for our products." However, we do not see the recovery of plastic as a fair compensation for the plastic we use. Instead, we see it as a part of our strategy to transition towards a circular economy.

Fundamentally, plastic offset opens up new channels for businesses to contribute to a better future. Yet, we all should be aware of the limitations of these new interventions and always seek to get better over time. 

Even though the solution we have right now is imperfect, we shall not let perfectionism take over. We must not allow irresponsible industries to weaponize imperfection and hopelessness as an excuse to not do anything. Sustainability is a concept that grows forever. We would always seek to be more sustainable, just as we seek a better quality of life. 

Relocalize is committed to making the world a better place. Our principle is to do whatever we can to be more sustainable at any moment. We have been finding ways to improve product packaging, facilitate reusability, and promote recycling. We will continue to seek better solutions and communicate these decisions with you.

Written by: Gordon So

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