Story | 31 Jan, 2022

The Plastic Leak Project interview - businesses now have a tool to reduce plastic leakage across entire value chains

An interview with Quantis, EA, and IUCN, some of the people behind the the Plastic Leak Project (PLP). They discuss how growing urgency and awareness around the issue of plastic leakage into the environment is driving companies and public authorities to make bold commitments to reduce their plastic leakage, and combatting that with the comprehensive, innovative solutions that PLP offers.

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Photo: IUCN/Quantis EA

What prompted the development of the PLP?

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) commissioned IUCN in 2018 to review worldwide plastic footprint methodologies. As a result, IUCN organised a workshop in Gland (Switzerland) with different stakeholders from the private sector. The conclusion was that of the various initiatives out there, none measured the plastic footprint or leakage of plastic to the environment. Plastic leakage is the potential amount of macro- and microplastics that are not kept in a circular loop or properly managed at their end-of-life. No methodology explained where the plastic leakage was coming from and where to prioritise preventative actions.

This gap prompted the creation of the Plastic Leakage Project (PLP) Guidelines, a multi-stakeholder initiative involving  35 organizations and co-founded  by Quantis and EA Environmental Action. This tool is the first step in creating a science-based plastic leakage mitigation plan by developing innovative metrics for businesses to build meaningful corporate strategies to tackle plastic pollution along their value chains. 

Why the necessity of a new methodology?

For over a  decade, companies have been using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology that considers many environmental impacts, such as the carbon or water footprint of business processes. LCA is a cradle-to-grave approach analysis technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life. For example, it is a great tool to evaluate the carbon footprint of plastic production. When it comes to assessing the amount of plastic pollution though, such as macro- and microplastic released in the environment, LCA has its limits. 

Julien Boucher, Quantis EAPhoto: Julien Boucher, Quantis EA
LCA has been misleading because it did not allow to anticipate the plastic crisis which exploded around 2016. Indeed, LCA was not accounting for plastic leakage and the impacts of plastic once in the environment. This is precisely why we developed the PLP methodology as a complement to LCA and other circularity metrics” -- Dr. Julien Boucher, scientific expert, founder, EA, Environmental Action


The PLP provides industry-specific guidance as well as a generic dataset to perform plastic leakage assessments. As a result, it helps businesses identify spots across  value chains where plastic risks leaking into the environment, and helps them find opportunities for innovation. The methodology responds well to inputs of varying types, as it offers to identify plastic leakage during transport, for example - including the abrasion from tyres and microplastic from road marking. Therefore, companies can forecast leakage with different scenarios and act accordingly.

Stakeholders must be able to detect the leaks within their own industry and supply chain to effectively “close the tap” on plastic leakage.

An example is in the textile industry, where businesses might be more focused on microfibers during textile washing, but by using the PLP guidelines, they may realise that a leakage hotspot is the end-of-life of the textiles or clothing. The end product of a PLP assessment results in the companies choosing the actions which are most appropriate for their business, that will lead to the highest-impact actions to prevent plastic leakage.

Laura PeanoPhoto: Laura Peano
Plastic pollution is a priority environmental issue for many companies and there is a lot of great work happening to use the PLP guidelines to direct action where it will make the most impact.” --Laura Peano, Global Plastics and Packaging Lead, Quantis




Lack of data: is the difficulty overcome?

In a plastic leakage assessment, the methodology allows experts to use primary industrial data collected specifically for a defined study; this includes direct activity data. For key assumptions, secondary generic data can be applied, such as  regionalised macroplastic waste management pathways. In some countries, there is insufficient secondary data on waste management, creating a problem when trying to calculate the plastic leakage in some value chains. This lack of data was solved through the publication of the UNEP-IUCN National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action, and the national reports published in 2020 include data sets that can be used within the PLP methodology . 

What barriers to break through in the future?

While it has potential to go even further, the PLP methodology is currently the most robust foundation for effective strategies and actions to address plastic leakage.

The primary difficulty encountered in using the PLP in Asia and South Africa was that local companies often lack the budget for expert support in implementing the PLP guidelines. Furthermore, while the PLP methodology works very well for final products, it has some limits when applied to intermediary products, such as polymers, where the final market and application is unknown. The COVID crisis has, without a doubt, slowed the uptake of this new methodology because of future financial uncertainties.

Gregory Guillot, IUCNPhoto: Gregory Guillot
We wanted to start from the top to inspire small enterprises. Therefore, we targeted each country's firms with assumed large plastic waste and leakage outputs, like large chemical companies, consumer goods, and supermarket chains. We selected the largest ones because they have the financial means to dedicate resources and time for the methodology and the application of its recommendations.“ --Gregory Guillot, Programme Officer, Businesses and Biodiversity Programme, IUCN

In Viet Nam, most companies interested in the PLP were from the food & beverage and apparel  sectors. In 2022, one of the world's largest seafood firms, Thai Union, will start using the PLP. In South Africa, it was very challenging to implement the PLP as the terminology of leakage might not be fully understood within the broader context of plastic pollution. South African companies are quite evolved in using tools, but they mostly favour using LCA.

Gerard Bos, IUCNPhoto: Gerard Bos
A National Action Plan on plastic pollution is based on the information available at the national or sometimes, international level that gets extrapolated for one country. An advantage of the PLP is that it sources at company level. It helps to check the reality with some theoretical models.” --Gerard Bos, Director, Businesses and Biodiversity Programme, IUCN



What are the main drivers motivating companies to use the PLP?

Of the companies that have used the PLP, such as Arla Foods and textile brand Sympatex, they found that the most valuable aspect was having the internal knowledge of where their plastic leakage hotspots were and which products contributed to it most. With this knowledge, they have been better equipped to target mitigation actions, including which country of their operations to focus on, and how they can increase their recycling rate. For companies with a vision for plastic neutrality, their leadership understands that using the PLP will create a competitive advantage.

The PLP could potentially assist companies in monitoring, reporting, and prioritising the most effective interventions to align with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) or other national frameworks. Using the PLP will empower businesses to meet any new regulations.

Future steps?

The different methodologies, tools, and approaches need to be harmonised and aligned for consistent outputs and ease of data sharing and results interpretation and comparisons. The next phase of plastic leakage assessments could include a plastic disclosure protocol similar to the carbon disclosure protocol. Companies should have to report their plastic footprint and if regulatory requirements are in place, businesses will want to improve their plastic footprint.

Acknowledgments and Support

SIDA logoPhoto: SIDA
The Plastic Leakage Project is an output from the Marine Plastics and Coastal Communities project (MARPLASTICCs), generously supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

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