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What does ‘plastic neutral’ mean, and is it just a marketing gimmick?

Published July 26, 2022

I’ve been receiving a lot of pitches from companies and PRs lately using the term ‘plastic neutral’. It seems to be the new ‘carbon-neutral’. Like many sustainability-related phrases and sayings, the term is vague, can be loosely applied and is without regulation. So how can you and I be more discerning about plastic neutral claims?

Environmental scientist and author of The Plasticology Project Paul Harvey explains:

What does ‘plastic neutral’ actually mean?

PH: Plastic neutral is an emerging market concept. It is something akin to a carbon emissions trading scheme. It essentially means that the amount of plastic that is used as virgin feedstock, raw material, or in some instances recycled materials to produce a given product is offset by efforts to remove plastics from the environment, divert plastics from landfill waste streams, etc.

So, in short, the idea is to create a balance: the impact(s) of any new plastic entering into the system is balanced by the ‘good deeds’ done to remove plastic from those trouble spots (e.g. remove plastic from the ocean). There should be no net gain of plastics entering into the environment.

Is the term meaningful? Done correctly, then yes. There is great potential for ‘plastic neutral’ operation to highly impactful in reducing the input of new plastic material into the resource stream. It will also help to reduce the output of plastic into the waste stream, and hopefully also contribute to a cleaner environment. However, caution must be taken to ensure that ‘plastic neutral’ does not become a free pass for plastic manufacturers and consumers to continue to generate plastics in a way that is irresponsible. I would also caution against plastic consumers that lean on ‘plastic neutral’ as the end-all solution. While this is a great step in better managing plastic as a resource throughout the lifecycle, it needs to be a part of a bigger strategy to phase out plastics except for those that are essential.

The Plasticology Project book cover

How can consumers be more discerning when evaluating a company’s plastic neutral claim?

PH: There really is nothing at the moment except to take the word of the company that is proclaiming such a credential. There is an organisation based in Belgium that indicates that it certifies plastics consumers as ‘plastic neutral’ however it is not clear what basis their certification scheme has. It would appear that this organisation has registered plastic-neutral as their trademark.

There is a company in Melbourne that also offers a certification. Again, it is unclear what basis this certification scheme has. There is certainly no internationally recognised or binding agreements that offer strength to such a certification status.

In terms of how consumers can best act with their wallets to help minimise impacts of plastic on the environment, it is actually really easy and very complex in equal measure. The first and foremost is for people to switch on their brains when they go shopping. It sounds patronising, I know, but it is the honest truth. For example, fruit does not need to be placed in lightweight plastic bags. This nonsense was a great 1980-90’s initiative that lingers today. If you insist on putting everything into a bag, take along some lightweight cotton bags. Reuse them on repeat, each and every time you go to the shops. The other thing that needs our brains switched on is relating to the type of foods that we eat. For the most part, foods that are pre-packaged in plastics are not great for us. They are probably highly processed and we don’t really need them (think chips, soft drinks, lollies etc). All we can do without. It you think about base ingredients – eggs, flour, butter, veggies – these are almost always packed without plastic. So a shift in what we eat also means a shift in how we consume plastic. It also makes us healthier!

Dr Paul Harvey sitting in bushland

Dr Paul Harvey

But it is more than that. The products that are pre-packed in layers of plastics are typically manufactured by companies that are trading at the international scale. We see only a small array of the plastic options that they offer the market. In other locations, the plastic is much more pervasive. By sending a message that we won’t be purchasing plastic packaged items, those companies are then forced to reconsider their relationship with plastic, and hopefully reconsider the packaging choices.

It is ultimately a matter of consumer and market pressure driving the change.

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