Recently I received a message from a vendor of greenhouse gas (GHG) offsets. He wrote to tell me that his firm was “getting closer to finalizing arrangements for high quality and legitimate plastics offset credits…within the plastics/recycling sector.” The message encouraged me to “rest assured” that the plastics offset credit would be “legitimate.”
I am not assured. Quite the contrary: Based on what I know about the petro-plastic industry’s GHG and hazardous air emissions, and its catastrophic ecosystem impacts, I’m convinced it would be greenwashing to claim that those impacts can be offset.
The amount and scope of greenhouse impacts at each stage of the petro-plastic lifecycle are immeasurably large and diverse, too large and diverse to be offset. Petro-plastic impacts result from: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) polymer production, 3) plastic refining and manufacture, 4) management of plastic waste, and; 5) plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape ecosystems. Collectively these impacts threaten the habitat of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, as well as humanity’s ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C.
Those impacts cannot be offset.
Greenhouse (and other hazardous) gas emissions from the petrol-plastic sector is so large and diverse they can only be estimated. However, even estimating that sector’s impacts is too complicated to be accurately quantified. Among many complications is a plastic refinery’s limited ability to measure and control “fugitive emissions” (e.g., leaks from flanges, seals, pumps, agitators, and other equipment), which account for a meaningful amount of the petro-plastic industry’s GHG and hazardous air emissions. Data uncertainty associated with petro-plastic production poses insurmountable verification challenges: if emissions data are unknowable, you can’t verify an offset.
The carbon offset market is important, and during the past 15 years or so the integrity of offset development and verification has advanced considerably. Consequently, there are many GHG offsetting options, those that do not relate to petro-plastic, which are ecologically authentic and helpful. This is a good thing.
The concept supporting GHG offsetting is not difficult to understand: GHGs are a global pollutant. GHGs affect the chemistry of the atmosphere, and atmospheric chemistry affects everyone. Accordingly, reducing or avoiding a tonne of GHG in Africa or the Amazon, for example, can legitimately “compensate” for a tonne of GHG emitted in the United States or Europe.
Of course, ultimately the world’s energy should come from clean energy and offsets should only be used for unavoidable GHG emissions, those that cannot currently be reduced or avoided, like flying on a plane. Given the amount of unavoidable GHG emissions our global economy emits, offsets will play a role in our management of GHGs for quite some time, even as we accelerate investments into clean energy and shift away from fossil fuel use. Therefore, maintaining confidence in the integrity of GHG offsets is important. Pretending that upstream and downstream petro-plastic impacts can be offset would damage the credibility of the offset market.
To be legitimate, offsets must satisfy six criteria:
1. The offset project must be “Real”: The project must authentically remove or prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
2. The offset project must be “Additional”: The project would not be possible without the financial backing coming from the offset investment.
3. The offset project must be “Verifiable”: A neutral, credible, third-party auditor must verify the offset project regularly.
4. The offset project must be “Quantifiable”: The volume of greenhouse gases must be able to be accurately measured and precisely related to the GHG impacts being offset.
5. The offset must be “Permanent.” Offsets must represent an emission reduction or removal for at least 100 years. Where projects have a risk of reversibility, adequate safeguards must be put in place.
6. The offset must be “Unique”. Only one carbon credit can be associated with a single reduction of 1 tonne of CO2e. No double counting. To assure no double counting carbon offsets must be stored and retired in a publicly accessible and independent registry.
Lifecycle GHG emissions associated with petro-plastic (and the industry’s catastrophic wildlife and ecosystem impacts) are so diverse and substantial they cannot be “verifiably quantified.” It cannot be done, so petro-plastic offsets cannot be valid.
Fundamentally, the ecosystem problems caused by petro-plastic stem from the sector’s reliance on petroleum and gas as raw materials. Whether it can be reduced, reused or recycled, plastic should no longer be made from fossil fuels. We need to replace petro-plastic with bio-based alternatives.
Bio-based materials are the only viable raw material alternative to fossil-fuel based plastic. However, not all bio-based alternatives to petro-plastics are of equal ecological value.
The good news is that some ecologically helpful bio-based alternatives to petro-plastic do exist. One example of a bio-based polymer that is being increasingly used by manufacturers is PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate). PHA is fermented from canola oil and can be broken down by bacteria. While petro-plastic never biologically degrades, a PHA product will authentically bio-degrade within a matter of months should it become litter or wind up in an aquatic setting. That may not be ideal, but it’s a helpful step in the right direction. Moreover, producing PHA and other bio-based alternatives engenders fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared with producing petro-plastic.
Almost twenty years ago, I began developing environmental programs for major sports and entertainment organizations. Then, as now, I focused on small, achievable steps, like encouraging energy efficiency measurement, recycling, and ending the use of paper products made from ecologically rare forests. Over time those small initiatives contributed to a global transformation in the way sports and entertainment events are produced.
A similar transformation needs to happen with bio-based plastics. Small steps can lead to big effects. Accordingly, it is worth noting that if someone requests a straw at this year’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in California, the straw she will get will be a PHA-based straw (sold by a US-based company called WinCup).
Yes, it’s ecologically better not to request a straw if possible. But if someone does request a straw, bio-based options should be available. Bio-based straws are indeed a very small step but, as Lao Tzu said, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.” Hopefully, the small step of bio-based straws at the Super Bowl will get noticed and help accelerate the global transformation we need to rid the planet of petro-plastic.
Allen Hershkowitz PhD
Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams.
Earlier Postings in this Column
Photographer J. Henry Fair
The opinions expressed here by Allen Hershkowitz and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.