Supply chain sustainability – In the age of plastics

Extremely cheap, strong, durable and pliable, there is no limit to plastics’ uses and applications.

They are a miracle that have saved lives in medicine and brought about an evolution in transportation improving safety, speed and fuel consumption. Plastics have upgraded packaging dramatically, revolutionising the preservation of goods and food, while developing all aspects of commerce. Take a quick look around, any time of the day, and it’s easy to appreciate the scope of their applications.

Plastic Waste

Unfortunately, all the above come with enormous, unaffordable costs. As we have become increasingly aware over the last decades, our boundless use of plastics has caused irreversible consequences on biodiversity and climate, even on our own existence.

The vast majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and every stage of the plastic life cycle, from extracting raw materials and refining chemicals to the end of life management, releases toxic and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Obviously, great efforts to prevent climate change and to move away from fossil fuels are being made in the energy and transportation sectors which are major pollutants. But even then, plastic waste will still remain everywhere and in even more terrifying volume.

400 million tons of plastic waste are produced every year.

As a result, 4 to 12 million tons find their way into the oceans, and these numbers are projected to triple over the next two decades. Today this is equal to one truckload of plastic being dumped into the ocean every single minute of every day.

In addition, more than one third of plastics are made for single-use, meaning that they are destined to be used only once before they end up in the environment where their presence will affect the planet and biodiversityfor centuries.

The vast majority of plastic waste produced is discarded into the environment, broken down, gradually, into small fibres and particles to be eaten by animals, birds and marine creatures, eventually ending up in human blood.

Scientific research continues to reveal unknown truths about the microplastics and nanoplastics released from common household items such as tea-bags, baby bottles and personal care products, which until now were considered safe for use.

A recent study by the University of Newcastle in Australia found that, on average, people could be digesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week, which is equivalent to the weight of a credit card. The total health impacts are still unknown, but microplastics can penetrate tissues and release toxic substances.

So what could be the solution to the consequences of plastic waste? Theoretically, this could be plastic recycling. Although several materials like paper, glass and aluminium can be literally recycled and safely made from recycled content, plastics cannot, at least at this point.

Post-consumer plastic waste recycling remains at an unbearably low 9%, while millions of tons of plastic waste are still being exported from the western world to developing countries and which means they are considered to be recycled. However a large percentage of these end up burning in open landfills or are simply dumped into the ocean.

The problem with plastic recycling lies with the material itself. In theory, a plastic bottle is recyclable. In practice, this must be adequately emptied, sorted at source, collected in the right manner, re-sorted from other plastics in a recycling plant, stocked but not mixed or contaminated in the process, sold and shipped to brokers and recycling plants where it will be re-sorted yet again before being processed, and at the same time there is the need to preserve its high quality at an adequate price point to complete the circle.

However, even when the above process succeeds, most of the time the result is not actually recycling but downcycling, that results in a product of lower value than the original item. This affects food packaging in particular due to toxicity risks.

The main barrier is that plastic recycling is not economical compared to fossil fuel plastics production. Facts and figures show that chemical recycling is not viable either. Plastic incineration or “waste to energy” has reached only 12%, yet burning fossil fuel plastics for fuel does not sit within circular economy values.

Alternative plastic solutions like biodegradables, compostables and oxo-biodegradables contain their own risks due to microplastics’ generation during the biodegradation or dissolving process. They also demand huge amounts of natural resources to be produced and processed.

In the end, most of these products complicate and hinder the plastic recycling process when entering the same processing line, while their identification and sorting have proved difficult and complicated. Meanwhile, our lives will continue to be inextricably linked with plastics, as there is no going back to the pre-plastic era.

Navigating through this Age of Plastics, GenPro chooses to be part of the change. Instead of focusing only on end-of-pipe solutions, which certainly carry their own unique value, we concentrate mainly on how to close the tap.

Αs part of our strategy, we make sure to maintain sustainable partnerships with our suppliers, constantly seeking real answers that consistently mitigate the problem, rather than complicate and undermine the solution. In addition to cost and quality, we set strict environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria throughout our supply chain tailoring our procurement process.

Taking advantage of our special role in the maritime industry, we focus on upgrading our suppliers’ ESG performance for the benefit of all our stakeholders.

Through the targeted trainings we provide, we limit the use of plastics to the absolute necessary while promoting eco-design packaging. In close collaboration with our suppliers, we aim for recycled content and high quality products. Our ultimate goal is to provide continuous exceptional service to our members.

Where possible we opt for mono-material products, escalating our efforts towards recycling and circularity. We prioritize plastic waste reduction and prevent waste generation, faithfully following the waste management hierarchy. Through our unique audit protocol we fight excess plastic packaging, securing at the same time our products’ highest quality.

We also implement initiatives, from data visualisations and analysis to environmental and socioeconomic risk projection studies, taking advantage of the solutions that technology provides. We opt to support and endorse other initiatives, such as the IMPA SAVE pledge, where we not only contribute towards a noble cause, but also towards educating and inspiring others to follow suit.

Through our consistent support and actions, we ensure our partners are constantly aligned with the relevant directives and regulations on plastics, plastic packaging and single-use plastics which are becoming increasingly stricter both at a national and global level. Additionally, we act in a proactive manner by seeking and implementing preventive measures for upcoming restrictions.

Realising the criticality of the plastic waste issue, we continuously intensify our efforts to phase out single-use plastics, choosing not only single-use alternatives but also focusing on reusable, sustainable solutions.

At GenPro, we act now. We do not only ‘think green’, but also ‘act green’ as a way of living and doing business. In close collaboration with our partners, we shape our industry in an unusual way to face an unusual reality. We get out of our comfort zone and implement radical and immediate changes to our entire supply chain to ensure a healthy environment for the benefit of current and future generations

GenPro is the joint venture procurement arm of Columbia Shipmanagement and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.

Article by by Christodoulos Manoli, Compliance and Sustainability Officer, GP General Procurement

This article first appeared in Supply Chain and Sustainability Magazine, the Maritime magazine for @IMPA & IMPA SAVE.