• The Circulate Initiative

Plastic Credits are the newest kind of pollution offset - but do they make a difference?


Author: Kristin Toussaint

In their attempts to go “plastic neutral,” some companies are paying to clean up plastic from nature. But does that mean anything if it just gives them license to make more plastic themselves?

One factor at the core of our climate crisis is excess: We’re producing too many carbon emissions, more than our atmosphere can handle. We’re creating too much single-use plastic, more than can be recycled. This excess has reached dangerous levels. Our planet has just 9% of its global carbon budget left, and each year, 8 million tons of plastic makes its way into our oceans.

To combat all this excess, companies can try to simply produce less, but these excesses can be hard to remove entirely from a business model. When a company can’t reduce, there are offsets or credits, which create a market for the effort to reduce these pollutants. When an organization does something that would reduce carbon, like planting trees, they can sell that benefit to a company looking to effectively reduce their emissions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol standardized carbon credits: each credit would represent one metric ton of CO2. That protocol also created different types of credits, from emission trading—when one country hasn’t emitted as much pollution as they’re “allowed” to, they can sell the left over amount to countries that have already passed their emission targets—to removal units, which use things like reforestation to remove CO2.

Now, the concept of credits are moving beyond emissions to one of the other most pressing forms of pollution: plastic. But while the idea of buying and selling plastic pollution credits is gaining traction, no standards like the Kyoto carbon credit standards exist. Instead, there’s a hodgepodge of different types of plastic removal, and different types of plastics, making environmental experts concerned about whether any promises that a company makes about being “plastic neutral” can be taken at face value if they involve credits.

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