- The environmental burden of plastic waste continues to grow.
- Politicians and businesses are pursuing innovative solutions to counter this trend.
- Investors can profit from these developments.
the combined weight of the plastic waste found in our oceans could exceed that of the fish, unless preventive action is taken.
Does the thought of eating a credit card for breakfast seem absurd? The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. A recent study by the University of Newcastle in Australia shows that each person consumes an average of five grams of microplastics a week.  That amount roughly equals the weight of one credit card. This fact should come as no surprise, considering that an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic winds up in our oceans each year − debris ranging from fishing nets to plastic packaging. Technically speaking, this adds up to roughly one full shipping container per minute. Sunlight and waves continuously degrade the plastic debris until all that is left are tiny particles. Over time, these microscopic pieces of plastic work their way through the food chain into the things we eat.
Fighting the problem of plastic waste
Progress is being made, however. For example, public perception is changing. The hashtag #breakfreefromplastic, introduced in 2016, is now being used by around 1500 organizations worldwide who are united in their efforts to reduce the volume of plastic waste. Politicians are also doing their part. The EU plans to ban plastic plates and cutlery beginning in 2021. China’s Hainan province plans to follow suit by banning disposable plastics four years later. Companies are also joining the effort. The Dutch social enterprise Plastic Whale retrieves plastic waste − especially PET bottles − from the canals and recycles it into desks and chairs. It seems that plastic furniture, once popular in the 1970s, is making a comeback. The company’s products are given nautical names and include items such as the “Barnacle” lamp and the “Whale” table.
An example of a larger scale initiative is the cooperation of Adidas with the organization Parley for the Oceans. Parley retrieves plastic from the ocean, which is then recycled by Adidas into athletic footwear. The sportswear manufacturer has a goal: By 2024, to use solely recycled plastic in all its athletic footwear and clothing. The company Aldi Süd is taking a complementary approach by working to reduce the amount of waste it produces. Its goal is to have all its store-brand product packaging be 100% recyclable by 2022 – a significant step forward as only nine percent is currently recyclable worldwide. Unilever recently introduced a range of household cleaning products in Germany whose bottles consist solely of recycled plastic.
Ethical solutions, financial transparency
These developments with regard to plastic waste are being monitored not only by environmentalists and consumers, but also professional investment strategists such as the DWS funds manager Paul Buchwitz. And with good reason, because companies that adopt new strategies to protect the environment are viewed more favorably by consumers − which in turn attracts the attention of investors. However, these efforts must also make good economic sense. Buchwitz manages the equity fund DWS SDG Global Equities and invests in companies whose environmental protection activities contribute to the achievement of at least one of the United Nation’s 17 sustainability goals. “In choosing companies to invest in, we look for companies that strive to minimize waste and those that specialize in recycling.”
Recycling is no longer merely a niche industry. “It’s a huge market that is continually expanding,” states Buchwitz. To give a few key figures: over 11,000 companies are involved in recycling and these generate annual revenues of approx. 70 billion euros, according to data provided by the German Environment Agency. What’s more, the consultancy McKinsey predicts that the amount of waste will increase by 80 percent by 2030.
The percentage of waste recycled is also expected to grow considerably, and estimates are that up to two-thirds of the waste will be recycled. There is no shortage of ingenious ideas. For example, subway ticket machines in Istanbul already accept plastic bottles and beverage cans as a form of payment. Instead of landing in the trash bin, these bottles are now recycled into functional items such as fleece sweaters, school bags or fluffy blankets.