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Interview: How to handle plastic sustainably as an organisation?

Senior LCA Expert Rik Wessels talks about the themes surrounding sustainability & plastic. How does an organisation handle plastic sustainably?

Plastic is a material with many favorable properties, making it attractive for many producers. However, plastic is also a material with a significant environmental impact. Therefore, plastic is one of the focus topics of Hedgehog Company. In this article, senior LCA Expert Rik Wessels talks more about the themes surrounding sustainability & plastic. And he answers the question: how does an organisation handle plastic sustainably? This turns out to be a complex question, and the answer varies by situation and product.

Rik Wessels
Rik Wessels, Senior LCA expert

Why is plastic an important sustainability theme?

Because of the large scale of plastic production; plastic is simply in a lot of products and is used in almost every other sector. It is in all sorts of products and, of course, in packaging.

And it is a material with a significant environmental impact: many plastics are made from oil, and a lot of fossil resources are also consumed during the production process. The impact does not stop there, plastic waste has a significant impact on our planet. Especially when this waste ends up in nature. Think, for example, of all the plastic in the ocean, the plastic soup.

At the same time, plastic is a material with many favorable properties; and in some cases, plastic can also be a more sustainable choice than alternative options. Plastic is light, for example, which limits the environmental impact during transport. And plastic lasts a long time, allowing products to have a long lifespan. This can make the overall environmental impact potentially lower than if the product would break sooner and thus need to be replaced more often.

All this makes plastic an interesting material from an environmental perspective; there is not one answer to the question of how significant the share of plastic is on the impact of your product or products. With the insights from an LCA, a life cycle analysis, you can answer this question. But what is most sustainable varies by context and product.

What challenges are there regarding sustainability & plastic?

These are challenges that arise around the material itself and the raw materials from which it is made. Plastic is made from crude oil in almost all cases. There are alternatives, such as biobased plastics, but even these have a negative impact if they end up in the environment.

And there are challenges around the reuse of plastic, and the properties that the material has after recycling. For example, not every type of plastic can be recycled. And with each recycling round, the quality of the plastic goes down. How usable is that material then for specific applications? Plastic is often chosen for its positive characteristics such as strength, moldability, and long lifespan.

If those properties change and the quality deteriorates, it may be more sustainable to choose new plastic; because the product then lasts longer or is sturdier. This depends on your product and how and where it will be used. Therefore, you must calculate and substantiate whether the extended lifespan outweighs the impact of the new material.

Choosing recycled plastic over new, "virgin" plastic does not immediately make your product sustainable. Other factors also play a significant role. For example, an LCA study for a manufacturer that uses recycled materials, HAHN plastics, showed that the most significant impact was caused by the energy mix used. The product consists of 100% recycled plastic, but the positive impact of that was negligible compared to the energy mix consisting of coal, gas, and nuclear energy. When the company heard this, they immediately switched to green energy; and with that choice, they reduced their environmental impact by 75%.

Furthermore, we see that, both among consumers and producers, awareness of sustainability and the impact of plastic is increasing. Many of our clients are asked by their customers and stakeholders for sustainability data. Customers want to know how sustainable certain materials or products are. And companies want these insights more often at the beginning of the production process, so they can design the production process as sustainably as possible.

What kind of organisation does Hedgehog Company support around plastic?

All kinds oforganisations; from recycling companies, producers of plastic granulate (plastic pellets that are used again as raw material for further plastic products) to producers of all kinds of products that incorporate plastic. We look at the impact and the share of plastic in it for each organisation and question.

What insights can organisations expect from an LCA?

People often expect that the greatest impact of their product comes from the plastic used. Or they think that their product becomes significantly more sustainable if they replace plastic with another material. But this is much more complex, and often an LCA study shows that the greatest impact comes from another part of the life cycle.

You can also use an LCA to compare the impact of different options. For example, when looking at packaging material, an outcome of an LCA study might be that a lightweight plastic film is the most sustainable option. Because it protects your product against spoilage, and it stays good longer during transport.

You can also perform an LCA to compare the impact of different variants or versions of your product. For example, we determined for Trust that CO2 emissions would go down by 80% if they replace the virgin plastic in the casing with recycled plastic.

What advise would you give to organisations?

It's a complex question where and how the impact of your product occurs. And the greatest impact can occur in a place where you don't expect it. There is no standard answer to the question of how you can make your product more sustainable. You will have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.

Your product goes through different life stages: extraction of raw materials, production, use, and processing afterward. Impact occurs in each of these phases, and you must judge your product on the total impact. The choices you make in production have further consequences later.

So I want to give organisations this advice; "You can't manage, what you don't measure". The only way to effectively and actually make your product more sustainable is by calculating that impact in its entirety.

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