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A Tool for Evaluating Environmental Sustainability of Plastic Waste Reduction Innovations

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
March 25, 2022

Plastic materials have become pervasive in 21st century economies, yet 60% of all plastics ever produced globally have been discarded either in landfills or elsewhere in the environment.This represents not only significant economic and material resource losses, but accumulation of plastics in natural environments can also impact wildlife and ecosystem wellbeing. Efforts to address plastic waste concerns are vast and diverse, involving every stage of the plastic supply chain, including development of alternative materials; innovative design and re-design of products and packaging systems; and improvements in recycling processes and markets.  Such advancements will require capital investment, and as such, strategic investors can influence the rate and direction of plastic waste reduction efforts. Experience from industrial ecology and related fields demonstrates that reducing plastic use or plastic waste does not necessarily result in reduction in environmental sustainability indicators such as energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use. Additional guidance is needed to assure that promising plastic waste reduction innovations also meet broader sustainable development goals.

This report introduces the Plastic waste Reduction Innovation Sustainability Evaluation Tool (PRISET).  The aim is to provide a guide for experts and non-experts to assess the sustainability performance of emerging products, technologies and services that can reduce plastic waste. PRISET builds upon existing frameworks, tools, knowledge bases and experiences of industrial ecology, life cycle assessment, circular economy and ESG reporting. This tool distills insights from these often complex and time-consuming assessment frameworks into 19 main Guidance Criteria structured within three Parts:
Part A Firm Level Sustainability Strategy, Goals and Governance, which helps identify the extent to which sustainability is a priority for the organization and the extent to which sustainability principles are embedded within the organization’s culture and practices.
Part B Innovation/Technology Characterization and Market Readiness, which are used to help analysts develop an initial examination of an innovation’s environmental merits; and
Part C Systems Level Sustainability Assessment, which helps evaluate the sustainability of an innovation, with an emphasis on environmental performance.

The overall objective of PRISET is to assist practitioners systematically assess innovations intended to improve the environmental impacts associated with plastic production, use, and disposal. The guidance criteria are intended to assess potential environmental improvements that may result from investment in a new innovation, as well as to identify areas of concern and determine where additional research may be needed. PRISET recognizes differences in the technology readiness level of plastic waste innovations. Different levels of technical maturity should be taken into account when applying the guidance criteria. PRISET is not an expert system that scores environmental sustainability performance of innovations. Judgment is ultimately required to incorporate guidance on environmental performance with other critical metrics used to evaluate potential investments. PRISET offers foundational background information and supportive direction for entrepreneurs, investors, consultants and other vested parties through what otherwise might be foreign and intimidating assessments. In addition to serving an evaluation function, the tool can provide innovation companies a platform to improve their sustainability performance. This report concludes with the application of the tool in a Case Study evaluation of CupClub, a traceable, reusable cup service.

Research Areas
Urban Systems and Built Environment

Impact Investing, Sustainability Assessment, Sustainability Performance

Publication Type
Full Citation

Keoleian, Gregory A., Martin C. Heller, Michael H. Mazor, and Shelie Miller. (2022) "A Tool for Evaluating Environmental Sustainability of Plastic Waste Reduction Innovations." CSS Report, University of Michigan: Ann Arbor 1-71.