Investment Institute
Environmental

How investors can respond to the plastics invasion

  • 01 September 2022 (5 min read)

  • We expect the next several years to become pivotal in moving away from plastics-dependent economies, with companies at the heart of the change
  • We have identified three key pillars of action that, if applied widely, could contribute to a systemic change across different industries all along the plastics value chain
  • Recycling technologies, alternative materials, waste reduction and circular economy principles all offer potential opportunities for investors, in our view.

The dramatic impact of plastics and plastic waste on our planet has created some striking data points. As of today, for example, the total mass of plastic in the environment is already more than twice that of all living mammals. And it’s not going anywhere soon – roughly 80% of all plastics ever produced remain, un-decomposed, in our cities, countryside and seas.1

It is a daunting problem for governments and a thorny issue for responsible investors. But it is, at least, being taken seriously. Back in 2017, the United Nations (UN) declared “War on Ocean Plastic” and it’s easy to see why. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems is projected to grow to around 53 million tonnes per year by 2030, about double the level seen in 2016.2 The total economic costs of marine plastic pollution, including its impact on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to have reached $6bn-$19bn globally in 2018, with projections of up to $100bn of annual financial risks for businesses by 2040.3

We expect the next several years to become pivotal in mitigating plastic pollution. In March this year, the UN approved the world's first-ever global plastic pollution treaty, aiming to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024.4 Some 175 nations endorsed this landmark agreement targeting the whole plastics value chain impacting people and nature.5 We believe this momentum should now be reflected in the private sector, with clear implications and potential opportunities for investors.

Companies will be at the heart of a transformation of plastics-dependent economies. According to a major 2020 report from research organisation Pew,6 this transformation should be massive, allowing for a $600bn (and up to $1.2trn as estimated by the World Economic Forum) overhaul of the world’s plastic system – reusing and recycling plastic in a circular economy, along with other, smaller-scale changes, including bioplastics solutions.

By adopting some of the significant measures proposed in the report, Pew estimates that plastic flows could be reduced by 80% over the next two decades. It is time to act. To do so effectively, it is important to clearly state the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks related to plastic pollution, but also to identify the advantages of potential solutions in terms of increasing the efficiency of economies and supporting innovative alternatives to conventional plastics use. This is where investors can best support this process, and potentially benefit from this powerful theme in the world’s push towards a more sustainable economic model.  

Focus #1: Oil prices impact on plastics

Crude petroleum is an important input used in the production of organic chemicals, which are in turn used as inputs into the production of more processed goods such as plastics products. Changes in oil prices therefore feed through into plastics products. The International Energy Agency has predicted that petrochemicals could account for more than a third of oil demand growth by 2030 as other uses dwindle. It is estimated that about 12 million barrels of oil a year are used to make plastic bags for the US alone.

Industries at stake

According to a recent study by J.P. Morgan, an increase of the price of oil and thus, oil derivatives and plastics, can have non-negligeable effects on earnings of companies in a range of sectors, including food and beverages and the auto industry. J.P. Morgan estimates that for car manufacturers, plastics products can represent about 50% of total car parts.

 

Understanding the plastic ESG footprint

Plastics and Climate: The vast majority of plastic is derived from fossil-fuel based materials including ethylene and propylene. The carbon footprint of plastics, therefore, includes the process of extracting and transporting oil and gas, as well as the associated manufacturing processes. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 4% of the world's annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process.7 The growing use of plastics globally contributes to boost the demand for fossil fuels, adding heavily to climate change acceleration.

Focus #2: A new type of carbon credits and plastics offsets

Carbon offsets, accounting for ‘emissions saved’, have recently been allocated to plastic waste recycling facilities in Europe, Barclays analysts have noted. Some companies can issue significant amounts of carbon credits on the voluntary carbon offset market for their recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic commonly used for food and beverage packaging.

The question is: Will this system to encourage PET recycling be more efficient than actual ‘plastic offsets’ aiming to incentivise cleaning up plastic from nature? In a formalised/mature carbon market it may be more motivating for companies to use PET recycling-based carbon credits. ‘Plastic credits’ may then become a complementary solution. Therefore, we should ensure that plastic offsets contribute to reducing the production of fossil-based plastics and not just covering new rises in plastics demand.

 

Plastics and Biodiversity: AXA IM has already highlighted the negative impacts on wildlife caused by plastic pollution. Among yet more startling data points, research cited by the European Parliament has predicted that by 2050 the weight of all the plastic in the ocean could exceed that of all the fish. According to the UN Second World Ocean Assessment report, plastics represent up to 80% of marine litter, with annual inputs into the ocean from rivers estimated at 1.15 million–2.41 million tonnes. The report also highlights that the presence of plastics has been identified in more than 1,400 marine species.

Moreover, plastics take an extremely long time to decompose naturally (they may take up to 1,000 years in landfills), leaking potentially toxic substances into surrounding soil and rivers, and thus having a powerful long-term impact on terrestrial, freshwater and ocean ecosystems, as well as on biodiversity more generally.8 9

Plastics and Public Health: Plastic is not only ingested by marine life – one study has suggested the average person eats five grammes of plastic a week, equivalent to a credit card.10 Some observations show that microplastics have been detected in bottled water and in the tissue of fish designated for human consumption. The potential consequences of such ingestion have not yet been well studied, but, in an effort to bridge this knowledge gap, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for the analysis of the potential impacts of microplastics on human health.11 The research on this specific issue is ongoing, but a broader study already published has estimated that each year between 400,000 and one million people in developing countries die from diseases caused by waste.12  This illustrates the implications of plastic pollution in important social justice issues, with impacts on vulnerable communities along the whole plastics value-chain – from fossil fuels extraction to potential health issues for consumers in the water and food chain.

Focus #3: Single-use plastics

Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10% has been recycled. According to studies at least 40% of plastics consumed annually are single-use.

The 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches represent 70% of all marine litter in the European Union (EU). They are: Cotton bud sticks; cutlery, plates, straws, etc.; balloons and sticks for balloons; food containers; cups for beverages; beverage containers; cigarette butts; plastic bags; packets and wrappers; and wet wipes and sanitary items.

 

Exploring the opportunity set

These factors represent ESG risks for investors – risks which echo those of climate change but have their own unique characteristics too. Governments and supra-national organisations clearly see the urgency to act on the plastics economy. Equally clearly, significant resources and global mobilisation will be needed to curb the production of plastic, especially single-use, and to ramp up recycling. Public authorities may set the course for this transition, but the private sector will fuel the engine to keep it moving.13

Companies are now able to bring a range of measures that can cut the use of plastics in individual operations, and when applied more broadly, may be able to reduce a sector’s reliance on plastics. We have identified three key pillars of action that, if applied widely, could contribute to a systemic change across different industries all along the plastics value chain:

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The reduction and optimisation of plastic use remains a fundamental (if challenging) building block of any systemic change. Another possible transition opportunity for investors lies with plastics recycling. According to one study, only around 9% of the world's plastic is recycled; the gap to bridge is huge and may become an important profitability driver for many companies. Recycling is a complex process, which includes several steps from material selection and product design to effective and responsible disposal (collect-> transport-> process) and eventually to its ultimate reuse in new products. Industries can act at each of those steps, including scaling up collection and sorting as well as improving recycling to better include more complex plastics. The efficient recycling of plastics is fundamental for retaining the value of plastics as a feedstock, which is key for a transition to a more circular and sustainable plastic economy. 

Focus #4: A word on plastics regulation

Europe, India, South Korea, and China are among the first key markets to start implementing single-use plastic bans. The EU SUP (Single Use Plastic) Law aims to “prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment and on human health” as well as promote the transition to a circular economy.

The French Anti-Waste Law reinforces the ‘polluter pays’ principle and creates new tools designed to better control and sanction offences against the environment and to support companies in eco-design initiatives.

The EU Taxonomy draft reports highlight that plastics used for packaging are the biggest use of plastic and source of plastic waste in the EU. Thus, the draft addresses specifically the manufacture of plastic packing goods by introducing the criteria of circular feedstock use (recycled or biobased plastics, etc.) as well as the design for re-use and recycling in practice.

 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a specialist campaign group funded by charities, public bodies and corporates, has proposed a vision for a plastics circular economy that aims to show change is possible. The strategy introduces the idea that all the plastic items we use should be kept in the economy and out of the environment (making plastics endlessly circulate). This means that used plastic, as a raw material, would find new value as a feedstock into the economy for sustainable use. It would then find a place among the plastics alternatives that are steadily emerging today, contributing to the hoped-for reduction in new plastics production.14

From plastic waste to a new plastics economy

Demand from industrials for alternatives to virgin plastic is rising.15 Consumer packaged goods companies are progressively setting ambitions to increase the content of recycled plastic or alternatives in their products, to accelerate recycling, and to reduce packaging volumes. Companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to set total and/or virgin plastic packaging reduction targets – part of an initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme.16 Demands from stakeholders, including responsible investors, are pushing companies to better understand the impact of their products, while guiding the reporting of their Scope 3 indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and related reduction efforts. It is notable that the approach to crucial Scope 3 emissions is uneven among corporates.17 A growing number of large consumer goods companies, meanwhile, are signing supply agreements with service providers in the circular economy, such as companies with proprietary plastic recycling processes and technologies.

Of the almost-7.6 billion tonnes of plastic waste we have produced globally since the 1950s, more than six billion tonnes are in landfills or the environment. Plastic waste remains a significantly untapped raw material, with just about 9% of all plastic waste ever produced having been recycled.18 We however see some trends indicating a growing commoditisation of plastic waste, which may help tackle the rampant pollution problem – in short, it makes no economic sense to throw away a potentially valuable material.

Multiple actors throughout the plastics value chain are shaping and formalising the plastic waste economy. In some countries, regulation or taxes on virgin plastic aim to gradually incentivise recycling and encourage the uptake of alternative materials.19 The EU’s plastic tax system should also encourage EU-based plastic users to change their practices.20 Many countries – France included – have long relied on waste exports to other, emerging, nations. However, the commoditisation of plastic waste should contribute to greater recycling rates locally, shifting waste from being a by-product of economic activities to becoming a viable resource in its own right. For that to work, and to effectively achieve circularity, waste collection, recycling and treatment capacity must also dramatically increase.

Focus #5: Circular economy for plastic as a key opportunity

According to estimates from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2040 a circular economy has the potential to:

  • reduce the annual volume of plastics entering the oceans by 80%
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%
  • generate savings of $200bn per year
  • create 700,000 net additional jobs

 

The waste management industry will likely continue to need capital to grow local recycling capacity and develop more efficient ways to recycle plastic. Mechanical collection and recycling will continue to represent the most common methods; however, there are positive developments in chemical techniques and in alternative recycling methods such as enzymatic recycling.21 Companies involved in these innovations are now trying to secure capacity and make their technologies commercially viable as soon as technically feasible. We also observe early-stage developments in waste-to-fuel technologies, such as liquefied waste plastic as an alternative to crude oil, or hydrogen production from plastic waste. However, current chemical recycling processes require high temperatures, thereby lots of energy, making them expensive and inefficient at this stage.

The global plastic waste problem has rekindled interest in alternative materials. The use of aluminium and glass, some of the two most widely recycled materials, is steadily increasing. These materials have advantages, and caveats, but manufacturers are also working on circularity. For example, using waste glass pieces to make new glass products significantly reduces the energy needed in the raw material melting process. This can help glass producers reduce their Scope 1 GHG emissions and their operational costs linked to energy use. In packaging, innovations in pulp- and paper-based products as well as bio-based plastics are emerging as alternatives. Some of these alternatives, namely bioplastics, come with their own set of challenges:

  • New bioplastics are emerging from the variety of feedstocks used to offer solutions in packaging, coating, resins, medical equipment, etc. The use of natural and renewable feedstocks is one of the main attributes of these polymers. Some can offer comparable levels of quality and similar barrier properties to commonly used fossil-based plastics (PET). But significant output growth could also imply accelerated impacts on land and water use to produce sufficient raw materials, given that production relies on virgin feedstocks only.
  • Some bioplastic producers communicate on the optimised decomposition capacities of their products. Solutions vary and some bioplastics can biodegrade in industrial composting but also home composting settings, others can even biodegrade within natural environments at much faster rates than their oil-based counterparts. However, these variations also create challenges for proper handling of bioplastic waste which, till now, has been only rarely recycled. Bioplastics needs to be in specific and controlled environments to efficiently biodegrade, and proper waste treatment capacity is still insufficient.

Still, manufacturers are working to accelerate biodegradation rates, to use alternative natural feedstocks (cover crops, biomass waste and secondary sugars), and to accelerate recycling. With rising demand for such solutions,22 we believe this creates opportunities for investors to support a much sought-after overhaul of the world’s plastic system.

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