The transparency of plastics

  • August 17, 2011
  • Politics
  • Comments Disabled

I was going to take a break from the plastics talk, since I just blogged about Styrofoam, but it seems like other plastics have surfaced in the news this week.

The Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) is expected to officially launch this September. Modeled after the Carbon Disclosure Project, the PDP is an effort supported by a group of investors, who will request that companies disclose information on their plastic use and strategies for reducing their environmental impact. The concept for the project was announced back in September last year, but there are now more details for what companies should expect this fall, including sample survey questions.

This is great news: the use of plastics is ubiquitous and the environmental problems associated with its use are numerous (e.g., depletion of natural resources, consumption of landfill space, effect on oceans and wildlife as pollution, etc.). So while I am pleased that this is happening, I find the news a bit anti-climatic…

By some measures, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has been a tremendous success. From the mere 200 companies who first reported with the CDP in 2003, there are now over 3,000 organizations in 60 different countries who disclose their carbon impact. In the latest report, 50% of its Global 500 respondents (that’s 250 companies) also reported emission reduction targets. This is entirely unprecedented. Can you imagine Wal-mart telling the world how much fuel their trucks consumed in the 1990s? (In case you wondered, since 2007, Wal-mart has partnered with the CDP on emissions reporting and encouraging its suppliers to reduce emissions).

The CDP then creates leadership indexes based on disclosure and performance. Companies in the S&P 500 that received “A’s” last year include News Corporation, Cisco Systems, and PG&E.

Which, as I said, is great. It’s hard to believe that companies would have taken all these actions by themselves if they hadn’t had the public eye confronting them. And that’s exactly the premise behind the PDP. But will this really be enough to get companies to give up (or reduce) plastic use? After all, some of the underlying premises behind carbon reduction aren’t the same.

For one thing, plastic is really, freaking cheap. A cynic might say that for many corporations, environmental successes take place when they intersect with cost savings. It’s a no-brainer: fuel costs a lot; therefore, moving to a hybrid fleet or electric vehicles makes sense. Same goes for installing solar panels and retrofitting lighting. And I am all for business justifications tying in nicely with the environment.

But whereas it might be easy to replace Styrofoam cups and plastic forks with reusable mugs and compostable cutlery (unless of course, you’re the US Congress), I struggle to see how disclosure of plastics will translate to action for the “big users” of plastics. If the economics don’t make sense, who will take the plunge?

It’s also debatable just how much success (that is, tangible, environmental impact) one can attribute to “disclosure” of environmental impact. It’s not entirely clear how these rankings affect decision-making by customers and investors, which is a fundamental goal of disclosure (i.e., reward those companies who are doing good). The latest Interbrand Best Global Green Brands ranking shows a wide “perception gap” for many companies: many customers don’t recognize actions when they’re taken, or mistakenly perceive some companies’ clever use of branding as evidence of action (ex: McDonald’s).

Could we extend the plastics ban beyond just plastic bags?

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