(Photo by iStock) 

Shoppers in the market for a tube of lipstick may soon be able to narrow their selection by comparing not just color and price, but also how much plastic various manufacturers use. A cosmetics maker from the United Kingdom is the first business to agree to measure its “plastic footprint,” using tools developed by the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP).

“If you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it,” explains Doug Woodring, founder of the international project that launched at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative. As a first step toward plastic reduction, PDP encourages companies to calculate their baseline footprint by tallying their use of plastics for manufacturing, packaging, and shipping.

“We’re not saying that anyone has a good or bad number,” Woodring says. “Let’s say your number this year is 100. Then next year, you get rid of some packaging and it drops to 90. That’s a great story.” The initiative is voluntary and nongovernmental. “We’re trying to do this without saying ban this or tax that,” he adds. Instead, PDP plans to leverage consumer and investor interest in brands associated with using less plastic.

PDP is a project of the nonprofit Ocean Recovery Alliance, based in Hong Kong, which has brought global attention to the giant plastic trash patch floating in the Pacific Ocean. Although the PDP website features images of plastic-strewn beaches and polluted waters, the organization is trying to take a neutral tone in communicating with companies. “We don’t say, ‘Don’t use plastic,’” Woodring says. “We know it’s lightweight, cheap, and durable. But if we’re not thinking about what happens to this stuff for the next 200 years, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We need to look at the end life of things.”

Some businesses have already started thinking about redesigning products and packaging to remove unnecessary plastic. “There’s a lot of blatant waste,” Woodring says. He predicts PDP will enlist 150 companies from 15 countries during 2012. They won’t all be manufacturers. PDP is also reaching out to hospitals, hotels, airlines, and others that may be surprised by how much plastic they touch in the course of doing business.

Consumers are likely to pay attention to plastic-reduction stories. “Plastic has a high consumer touch point. Kids know this material. It’s visible, unlike carbon,” Woodring says. “When companies get out in front and show they’re leaders, we think they’ll be rewarded.”

Socially responsible investors are just beginning to pay attention to plastics. “We think investors will see a company’s plastic footprint as a valuable piece to look at in yearly investment decisions,” Woodring predicts. PDP surveyed investors last year to gauge their attitude toward plastic. “At first, their reaction was, ‘Why should we care?’ But after we talked with them about environmental issues, wildlife issues, as well as opportunities for new investments, then 90 percent said yes, they would want to know [about a company’s plastic footprint].”

Along with reducing plastic use, PDP is keen to encourage innovation when it comes to recycling and reusing the petroleum-based material. If plastic is treated as a secondary raw material instead of waste, Woodring says, “then someone out there can make value from collecting, gathering, sorting, and having someone use it.” An estimated 15 million people around the world currently survive by sorting garbage. With a refocus of their energy, today’s trash pickers could become part of tomorrow’s plastic reuse industry.

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