Is it Time for a Plastic Audit? 100 Million People Can’t Be Wrong

It's time for a plastic audit. Plastic waste is a one reason why many businesses are paying more than they need to for waste removal.

“Just one word… plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

The Graduate

Those famous lines from the 1967 movie The Graduate were pretty accurate. Today, plastic is everywhere. Their usefulness is undeniable, but the impact of plastic waste on our environment and on every business’s bottom line is becoming too large to ignore. How big is your plastic waste problem? It may be time to find out with a plastic audit.

Conducting a plastic audit is one of the easiest ways to respond to the growing global pressure to reduce plastic waste. The #PlasticFreeJuly campaign, which has attracted over 100 million people from 190 countries, with more joining in each year, is just one gauge of the widespread demand for action on plastic pollution. Your business’s customers, staff, investors, and other stakeholders are likely aware of, or participating in the challenge. Don’t ignore them. This is a big opportunity to connect with your core audience as well as the 100 million people looking for solutions to the global plastic problem.

What is a Plastic Audit?

A plastic audit is a type of waste audit.

In general, waste audits are surveys of a business’s waste stream. Waste audits provide insight into the amount and types of waste your business is generating, discarding in the trash, and diverting from the landfill. It can reveal inefficiencies in your waste and recycling programs, and provide actionable insights for improvement. Waste audits are an essential part of every effective waste management plan.

Waste audits can be done for a specific purpose, for example, to verify billing or to determine the amount of high quality edible food waste generated that can be donated. A plastic audit is a waste audit that focuses on identifying the amount and types of plastics in your waste stream. Data from a plastic audit can help you reduce plastic waste.

Largest Global Waste Study Reveals Size of Plastic Problem

How big is your plastic problem?

In the largest global study of commercial waste to date, with data from 100+ waste audits analyzing over 170,000 lbs of waste, Great Forest found that 62% of what a typical business discards in the trash is NOT trash at all but is made up of materials that could be diverted from the landfill, including a lot of plastic. Plastic was consistently a material of concern in these global audits:

  • The largest portion of non-organic divertable materials found in the audits was plastic.
  • The largest portion of non-organic divertable materials going into the trash stream was plastic.
  • Most of the contamination in the Glass/Metal/Plastic recycling stream was due to soiled plastics.

While the global study reveals that plastic is a big challenge for almost every business around the world, it also makes clear that plastic presents a remarkable opportunity to make a big impact. Want to reduce waste and increase sustainability? Address plastic, starting with a plastic audit.

The Plastic Problem in Numbers

Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021, about 85 percent went to landfills, ten percent was incinerated, and only about five percent was recycled, according to a report “The Real Truth About the U.S. Plastics Recycling Rate.”

The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimates that the amount of plastic waste in the nation’s municipal solid waste system has grown continuously since 1960, with the greatest increases occurring between 1980 and 2000. Plastic waste generated in the U.S. increased from 0.4 percent of total municipal solid waste in 1960 to 12.2 percent in 2018.

It has been reported that almost every piece of plastic ever made still exists. A search of a variety of sources and studies offers some estimated figures:

  • Plastic bags: About 100 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. every year, and about one trillion are used annually worldwide. That’s nearly 2 million every minute. While plastic bag bans are said to be able to eliminate 300 single-use plastic bags per person per year, some data suggests that the bans may have led to more, not less, plastic being used because of the switch to more durable, multi-use bags.
  • Plastic bottles: In 2016, more than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold worldwide. Just a decade before, the number was 300 billion. If placed end-to-end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. In the U.S., it has been estimated that more than 38 billion water bottles are sent to landfills every year. That means that 1,500 plastic bottles are thrown away every second of the day.
  • Plastic cups: Globally, over 500 billion disposable cups are used annually, of which between 250 and 300 billion are plastic-lined paper cups.
  • Plastic straws: The highest estimate puts U.S. straw use at about 500 million a year, but other studies put the figure between 170 million and 390 million per day, or 63 billion to 142 billion straws per year.
  • Plastic packaging: In 2015, plastic packaging made up over half of the world’s plastic waste–over 141 million metric tons.
  • Plastic takeout containers: 44 percent of plastics in the ocean are linked to takeout food.
  • Plastic utensils: More than 100 million pieces are used in the U.S. each day.

Why Every Business Needs a Plastic Audit

  • Determine the size of your plastic challenge: How much of your waste stream is made up of plastic? And where is all that plastic coming from? A plastic audit will help you determine the size of your plastic challenge, and devise solutions to fit your needs.
  • Reduce costs: Reducing waste is the key to controlling rising waste costs. With Great Forest’s global waste study reporting that 62% of what a typical business discards in the trash is NOT trash at all, we know most businesses are paying more than they need to for waste removal, and plastics is one big reason. Even if your business is not associated with plastic use, think about how many single-use plastic items are brought into your facility every day. From a business standpoint, it simply makes long-term financial sense to reduce single-use plastic waste and invest in reusable products that can be used over and over again.
  • Get ahead of regulations: In 2020, over 500 community and conservation organizations released their Presidential Plastics Action Plan urging federal legislation to ban the use of single-use plastics and to limit plastic production. Across the country, various bans and legislations on single-use plastics are already in place, and more are coming down the pipeline. Businesses can wait for these regulations to affect them, or they can take the lead. Businesses that respond appropriately before they are forced to comply with bans and regulations have the upper hand. This is not only good for the environment, it is also good for business.
  • Respond to demand for action: The public is demanding action. Businesses would be foolish to ignore this global pressure because the benefits of addressing plastic waste can reverberate far and wide. Taking action on plastic can impact your business’s sustainability goals, ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) investor ratings, CSR and other sustainability reports, LEED and TRUE Zero Waste certification efforts, and more. Addressing plastic waste can be one of the simplest yet highest impact decisions you make.

Mini Case Study

Solutions can be simple. During a waste audit investigation, Great Forest discovered that plastic water bottles made up the bulk of one company’s waste stream. The solution?

  • We worked with the company to install water dispensers throughout their offices.
  • We supported that effort with an educational campaign encouraging staff to bring in their own reusable mugs, and reminded staff that it was the cheaper alternative to purchasing bottles of water.

Ready to Take Action on Plastics?

Take the lead and schedule your plastic audit today. Need help? Ask Great Forest.

Great Forest is a global leader in waste audits. Great Forest established the waste audit process that has become industry standard. Our team has collectively managed and conducted thousands of waste audits around the world. Great Forest was also responsible for conducting the largest global study of commercial waste to date, with data from 100+ waste audits analyzing over 170,000 lbs of waste. 

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This article was originally published on LinkedIn in 2021, and was updated in 2024.

Photo: ishan seefromthesky, Unsplash

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