Plastic Footprint Part I: Insights from a Case Study
by: Leticia Socal | March 22, 2023
ClimeCo’s Plastic Project Partner, The Way Project, Cote d’Ivoire
At this point, we all know there is a global crisis of plastic waste. Consumers rank plastic pollution among the top three environmental issues  and have started associating plastic and packaging with environmental degradation. Consumers’ expectations of companies to shift to more sustainable practices have grown. Companies started committing to plastic reduction, recyclability, recycled content, and eliminating problematic plastic. There is so much to do, but where do we begin?
Once a company understands how plastics flow in and out of its value chain, it’s easier to work on plastic mitigation strategies. Plastic footprints are a fast-evolving starter to waste mitigation. They help a company achieve its commitments and plastic-focused ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) targets. A plastic footprint measures the total amount of plastic used, calculating the baseline against which progress can be measured. Despite its straightforwardness, application, and approach may vary depending on goals, purpose, and scope. Is the footprint measuring an entire company’s operations, or only focusing on one product, or could a company want to understand the plastic footprint of a one-off event? Defining the proper scope and determining which areas of plastic usage are included or excluded at the very beginning of the process is extremely important.
Modeled after its precursor, the carbon footprint, the plastic footprint reflects a similar model—measuring, mitigating, and investing . This topic has gained more attention in recent years, followed by a spike in plastic pacts, agreements, bans, and zero-tolerance statements . Global trends reveal that a growing number of countries are responding to customer demand, requiring more “environmental considerations into their products .” Perhaps the spike is fueled by fear, opportunity, or hope. Whatever the reason, the inspiration to act, and be successful, requires a baseline from which to set a foundation. Studying a success story here is meant to guide, educate, and inspire your plastic footprint on the first step on your journey to plastic ESG.
Case Study: Plastic Footprint for a Cosmetic Business
ClimeCo examined the process and corresponding results from conducting a plastic footprint for a cosmetic business whose mission is to provide clean products with ingredient transparency and zero or low waste in its operations. Plastic footprint assessments provide the baseline for action, valuable insight for informed decisions, long-term cost savings, and partnership opportunities across the value chain.
Let’s dive deep into the process of making one of its products: a body lotion. The steps of this exercise were:
- Assessing the internal plastic footprint
- Designing and defining (where needed) mitigation measures
- Enhancing product offering and marketing
- Creating opportunities to connect more with customers and/or existing suppliers
Like a carbon footprint assessment, the first step is defining the scope. In this case, ClimeCo looked at the inflow, operational, and outflow of plastic in the company’s value chain.
- Inflow plastic is the packaging that enters the company’s operations attached to a product and leaves it as waste. (In this case: ingredient packaging)
- Operational plastic, like industrial plastic, is used and disposed of during a company’s operations (In this case: plastic gloves, stirring tools, and storage containers)
- Outflow plastic is attached to a product within a company’s operational boundaries and leaves together with the product. (In this case: the primary packaging, outer box, marketing and instructional materials, and decorative add-ons)
After a detailed survey, we clearly defined the picture of the plastic flowing throughout the company’s operations. An assessment of the type and form of plastic packaging and material usage (single use vs. durable) was done, detailing all important data and highlighting hotspots for action. Local waste management and partnership opportunities were included in the data analysis as well. This data built a roadmap with short, mid, and long-term actions.
With zero investment, the company reduced waste sent to landfill from 62% to 30%. Reducing waste to landfill was achieved with immediate, internal changes, such as proper on-site sorting and disposal, leveraging available waste management, and a local recycling center. Improved employee training and adequate labeling of waste bins were also vital in increasing landfill diversion and reducing recycling stream contamination with non-recyclables. Changes to the product packaging were made, reducing the outflow plastic footprint from 64% diversion to zero, as part of a 100% reusable and recyclable packaging program.
Next, the company took the following external steps to mitigate its footprint further while enhancing its relationships with suppliers and customers:
- Initiating upstream partnerships with suppliers to return and reuse shipping containers and packaging, reducing inflow packaging.
- Offering refill and takeback programs to customers in exchange for discounts and rewards. This is only possible because the product packaging is now durable, washable, and can be sanitized with every use.
- Evaluating operation-related and product-related certifications such as waste diversion, plastic-free seals, and recyclability.
- Educating customers by adding information on the takeback program, disposal options, certifications, and the plastic footprint to product marketing.
- Improving landfill diversion through local haulers and recyclers outreach (new goal is from 30% to less than 10%).
- Offsetting the unavoidable plastic by investing in collection & recycling activities through verified plastic credits.
Aside from enhancing product messaging, customer engagement, and reportable ESG metrics for stakeholders, the cosmetic company saw a 10% increase in overall sales and positive customer feedback. Moving forward, plans for this company include expanding the plastic footprint exercise to other products, which is an easy task to implement due to the availability of initial footprint data.
With a quantified baseline and a coherent action plan laid out, the most challenging part of creating a successful plastic ESG plan is complete. The benefits of this plan go beyond reducing pollution. You can now create value that was unattainable before.
The next step requires answering questions such as:
- How much money are you saving by making plastic-conscious choices?
- What are the new marketing opportunities available?
- What is the ROI of changing your operations to be more sustainable?
Part II of this blog will answer these questions. Actions like these will appeal to your senior management, investors, and customers alike. There is a small window available where you can act, stand out from the competition, and be a part of creating the solution. Stay tuned for our next blog, where we outline the data you need to make a case for preventing inaction.
 Shelton Group, Waking the Sleeping Giant: What Middle America knows about plastic waste and how they’re taking action
 ClimateTrade, The evolution of carbon footprint measurement
 Reuters, Big brands call for a global pact to cut plastic production
 The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The rise of single-use plastic packaging avoiders
About the Author
Leticia Socal is a chemist and seasoned plastic industry professional with over 15 years of experience spanning R&D, intellectual property, market research & strategy. Leticia is a certified TRUE Zero Waste advisor and a Blue Consultant. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Chemistry, a Master of Science in Materials Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Polymer Science.
“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead