27 August 2019: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has published a review of plastic footprint methodologies, which underscores the importance of a standardized methodology to assess the amount of plastic leaking into oceans and ways to measure its harm to ecosystems and human health.

The review titled, ‘Review of Plastic Footprint Methodologies: Laying the Foundation for the Development of a Standardized Plastic Footprint Measurement Tool,’ explains that while an estimated 8,300 million tonnes of plastic was produced from 1950 to 2015, only 7% has been recycled, and more than half has been discarded in landfills or leaked into the environment. In addition, up to 12 million tonnes (the equivalent of more than one dump truck per minute) are discarded into oceans annually. This, according to the report, underscores the need for a paradigm shift in the way plastic is produced, used and managed towards circular material flows, to adequately address the plastic pollution crisis.

The review provides, for the first time, an overview of all 19 existing plastic footprint methodologies that had been identified as of early 2019, finding that most existing methodologies focus on assessing plastic use, waste or recycling rates. However, the report explains that no common, agreed on methodology to measure the extent of the impacts of plastic pollution exists, undermining effective and informed decision making to successfully address the issue. It thus emphasizes the need for a holistic approach to measure the impact of plastic pollution that assesses the entire value chain and lifecycle of plastic products to enable the measurement of trade-offs between different impact categories, such as climate and ecosystem damage.

The report includes recommendations for developing a standard set of indicators that highlight the costs of inaction, and help identify investment opportunities into a circular plastic economy, which will, in turn: drive action to tackle plastic at source; enhance efforts towards designing more effective models that will help assess macro and micro plastic leakages; and lead to improved data collection and analysis on plastic waste management at the global, regional and national levels.

The analysis reveals two groups of methodologies: those that identify plastic waste streams and recycling rates at the national or business level; and those that focus on pathway modeling to measure plastic leakage into waterways and oceans, from either mismanaged waste or in the form of microplastics. The review also notes the need for stronger convergence between methodologies.

The report explains that current life cycle assessments do not account for plastic as a pollutant, and assume that 100% collection of waste streams go to landfill, incineration or recycling. While several projects aim to develop an inventory approach to assess leakage for both macroplastics and microplastics, they are not yet available for use. While a generic plastic footprint based on such methodologies could be achievable in the short term, significant challenges must be overcome to develop a more specific methodology to support eco-design strategies.

IUCN is working with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the scientific community to develop a methodology that can provide the necessary data and analysis to inform decision making on reducing plastic leakage. Moving towards a single indicator, such as a monetary valuation metric, could help weigh the cost of inaction on plastic waste and leakage with other potential actions, and provide monetary information on the impacts caused by plastic leakage and on the return on investing in mitigation and remediation.

The review is part of IUCN’s Close the Plastic Tap Programme, which aims to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean. [Publication: Review of Plastic Footprint Methodologies: Laying the Foundation for the Development of a Standardized Plastic Footprint Measurement Tool] [Publication Landing Page]