Creative Funding Models for Sustainable Plastics Innovation
The traditional LEGO brick is made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic, a material that is prolific in our society due to its extraordinary strength yet presents challenges with recyclability. As part of an overall strategy to make this iconic toy more sustainable, LEGO launched its sustainable materials center in 2015. The company’s first success came with the development of a biobased plastic made from sugar cane. While this new material was great for more flexible accessories like trees and leaves, it was not strong enough to support the load bearing required of bricks. This past June, The LEGO Group announced its first recycled brick which reduces the carbon impact of a typical brick by 70%. This is exciting news and points to why the private sector, in tandem with NGOs and the federal government, is investing in innovations focused on the end-of-life recovery of plastics.
As the LEGO example points out, there is heightened demand for recycled materials as feedstock for more sustainable production. Using the example of the recycled brick, a 70% carbon savings by reusing plastics indicated a significant opportunity to reduce our climate impact as well as our material demand and the associated impact that come from extraction, production, and manufacturing. It also helps us address existing plastics already in our environment. Scaling up technologies and research to advance reuse is a strategic approach to reduce our environmental impact, increase our energy independence, and strengthen our global competitiveness. In the past five years the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has invested over $110M into applied research to help expand our ability to reuse plastics.
The REMADE Institute was launched in 2017 with the intent of driving down costs and increasing the quality of recycled materials. The DoE will invest $70M into the REMADE Institute over five years to help identify new technologies and processes to help improve material recycling. An additional $70M is anticipated through contributions from public-private partnerships.
The DoE also launched the Plastics Innovation Challenge (PIC) in November 2019, with the goal of reducing plastic waste by positioning the U.S. as a world leader in advanced plastic recycling and upcycling technologies. The PIC seeks to enable American companies to develop and deploy innovative technologies. In addition to coordinating with the REMADE Institute and BOTTLE (see below), PIC also announced an additional $14.5M in funding in 2021.
The Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE™) consortium is a subset of the PIC and dedicated to researching new approaches to recycle thermoplastics and thermosets. Over $27M will be given to national labs across the country to help coordinate the best ways to deconstruct and recycle plastics, as well as advance the adoption and development of bioplastics. Similar to the REMADE Institute, opportunities for corporate engagement through a private-public partnership model are available.
What do these initiatives have to do with a recycled LEGO brick? Companies are increasingly interested in finding ways to advance the sustainability profile for the plastics they use. With corporate goals for increased recycled content across multiple industries, investing in applied research will help advance the recycling of materials already in our environment and help provide for recycled feedstock which can reduce our cumulative material and greenhouse gas profiles.
As seen with LEGO’s brick made of biobased plastic, substituting materials is not always applicable. Emerging materials may not have the same properties and strength required to meet product demand, and new technologies to help deconstruct and recycle plastics are needed. Both mechanical and chemical recycling could help advance the world’s sustainability goals. While LEGO’s innovation in transforming recycled PET into a brick strong enough to compete with ABS is a significant achievement, imagine what could happen when we figure out how to recycle the existing ABS bricks? Public-private partnerships in recycling technologies are a valuable strategy in driving progress toward that goal.