World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

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Putting the Credible in Plastic Crediting

  • Date: 28 January 2021
  • Author: Erin Simon, World Wildlife Fund and Ellen Martin, The Circulate Initiative

Plastic crediting has recently emerged as a promising—but not yet proven—way companies can help fix a broken piece of the plastic value chain: waste management.

Conceptually, a plastic credit is a transferable unit that represents a specific quantity of plastic waste. Plastic crediting has developed partly in response to the challenges companies face in managing their post-consumer waste in complex waste management systems. The associated concept of plastic neutrality is a way for companies to claim to “balance” their plastic footprint through credits that pay for the removal of plastic in the environment equivalent to their plastic pollution footprint.

And, 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.

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.

Today, The Circulate Initiative (TCI) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released our separate perspectives on how to shape the path for plastic crediting going forward. Between TCI’s evaluation of best crediting practices and WWF’s parameters for a credible program, the consensus between our organizations is that plastic crediting must leave a positive impact on people and nature. To get there, all programs should mitigate risk, align on best practices and be leveraged only when they contribute to systems-change.

Mitigating risks

Plastic crediting programs have the potential to drive important investment to our waste management systems. However, if not designed and implemented well, plastic crediting programs could do more harm than good, from greenwashing to derailing legitimate efforts on plastic waste reduction.

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. This language is especially dangerous when crediting is used in place of a more impactful plastic mitigation strategy. Companies should not be able to cheaply “buy” their way out of responsibility to the plastic they make by purchasing credits, without addressing change needed in their products and supply chains. Any crediting scheme should provide strict rules around what claims can and cannot be made with purchased credits and provide guardrails around communicating claims in a transparent, effective way.

Another risk is the threat to progress on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) implementation. WWF has identified EPR as a necessary and effective intervention for addressing plastic waste. Specifically, there is concern that the widescale adoption of crediting activities will either not coordinate with local EPR implementation, or even be seen as an adequate alternative to EPR. As governments adopt EPR policies, it remains to be seen whether voluntary credit schemes will support or threaten their progress. Participants should be aware of the risk that bespoke programs may interfere with effective interventions.

For a comprehensive list of the risks associated with plastic crediting, see WWF’s Position on Plastic Crediting and Plastic Neutrality.

Aligning on best practices

Currently there are 32 claims and crediting programs in the marketplace, but no formal, agreed-upon standard or methodology framework to determine credibility or bring transparency to the process. This gap creates a landscape mired with inconsistencies and vulnerable to risks, which can ultimately lead to unintended consequences for the environment, communities, and the shift towards circular systems.

In the absence of standards, TCI identified 11 best practices that should guide the development, approach to impact, implementation and adoption of certification and credit programs. Across the existing 32 standards, no single program has adopted all 11.

While we understand that best practices take time to develop well and aren’t readily available the moment new programs come to market, it is important that crediting organizations embed and embrace best practices as they evolve and strive for continuous improvement. Best practices are indispensable to reinforcing environmental, social, and legitimacy safeguards that must be embedded within any plastic crediting program.

But crediting systems must also be designed to contribute towards systems-change: amendable for continuous improvement, driving progress towards more circular systems, and designed with comprehensive EPR in mind. See WWF’s Principles for Credible Plastic Claims here..

Pursuing as additional action, not a singular strategy

Best practices and risk mitigation can ensure crediting programs create meaningful impact on waste management and pollution, but they will only contribute as a meaningful tactic on plastic waste if taken as a supplemental action to a holistic corporate plastic strategy. Companies must first prioritize the reduction of their own plastic waste footprint – eliminating unnecessary plastic, moving to responsible sourcing of the remaining plastic, and working to increase the reuse, recycling, and composting of their products.

Both TCI and WWF are invested in embracing innovation on plastic waste as a force for solving complex problems in a complex environmental crisis. But to embrace innovation we must also lay the groundwork for its success – and for plastic crediting, that means pushing for plastic crediting systems which follow best practices in governance, social, and environmental issues, to ensure plastic crediting drives impactful and transformational change and lives up to its potential to deliver much-needed investment to waste management.