Most people are familiar with the concept of a carbon footprint. Many may also know there is such a thing as a water footprint. But whoever heard of a plastic footprint? Well, soon, more and more people will have.

Starting in early October, hundreds of companies and institutions around the world will receive a questionnaire asking them to assess and report their use of plastic: how much they use, what processes they have for recycling and what — if any — policies they have to reduce their plastic consumption or to increase the proportion of recycled or biodegradable plastic within their organizations.

Fairly simple questions, but ones that could help to thrust the issue of plastic waste and pollution onto the radars of corporations, investors and the public.

"What we're trying to do is to have companies manage and use plastic much more wisely, and to receive recognition for doing so from both customers and investors,'' said Doug Woodring, an environmental entrepreneur in Hong Kong who is the driving force behind the initiative.

"Plastic pollution is a major global phenomenon that has crept up on us over the decades, and it really requires a global and comprehensive solution that includes systemic rethinks about usage and production.''

The Plastic Disclosure Project is trying to provide the solution that Woodring describes, by pushing the thinking about plastic pollution far beyond beach cleanups.

The concept is not new. The initiative models itself on the Carbon Disclosure Project, which has been prodding companies into monitoring and improving their carbon emissions for about a decade.

About 3,000 organizations in 60 countries measure and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate change strategies through the project. Last year, the project also began asking about water use, with the same aim of prompting more conservative use of that resource.

Like the carbon project, the plastic disclosure initiative is backed by investors: asset managers who value information about any potential wastage or liabilities related to the use of energy, water or plastic, or, conversely, any improvements that will bolster a company's bottom line or its image.

"Increased transparency by companies should improve the ability of sustainable investors to assess the investment risks and opportunities of companies in the global plastic value chain,'' said Jeremy Higgs, managing director of Environmental Investment Services Asia, an investment management company. Last month, it became a founding sponsor of the Plastic Disclosure Project, with a $50,000 grant.

Campaigners and scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm over the amount of plastic that is used wastefully (think of single-use drink bottles and packaging), or that ends up as trash in rivers and oceans. Many say that plastic pollution has swelled into a major threat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says marine debris "has become one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world's oceans and waterways.''

About 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year. Only about 10 percent of that is recycled. Of the plastic that is simply trashed, an estimated seven million tons ends up in the sea each year.

There, it breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments over the years.

The tinier the pieces, the more easily they are swallowed by marine life.

Because much of the disintegrating mass is no longer in the form of solid chunks, it is hard to scoop it out once it gets into the ocean. And because no single nation or authority bears responsibility for the oceans, cleanup and prevention are largely left to nongovernmental organizations.

"It's ironic: the very features that make plastic so popular also make it problematic,'' said Erik Floyd, treasurer of the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia. He cofounded the plastic project with Woodring.

In other words, because plastic is inexpensive, lightweight and durable, virtually every industry loves it. But because it is light and cheap, there is a lot of it. And because it is so durable, it does not go away.

A big part of the solution therefore has to be to prevent plastic from getting into the environment. That, in essence, is what the Plastic Disclosure Project aims to do. And the time may come when plastic trash is seen as having commercial value. After all, plastic, which is petroleum-based, can be converted into fuel.

Copyright 2011  The Boston Globe