Innovators across the Plastic Supply Chain Share Opportunities to Advance Sustainable Plastics

This past July, Google X released an executive summary of a research report exploring how to close the plastics gap. The report notes that, under a business as usual (BAU) scenario, reducing plastic waste will require a portfolio of tools but that “it is possible to close the plastics circularity gap 59 percent under a BAU scenario with a set of five strategic interventions.” This leaves 41 percent of plastics as an opportunity to further close the gap – one that can be addressed through plastics innovation as an additional intervention.  

Last month, the U.S. Chamber Foundation hosted roundtables with innovators across the plastic value chain to understand the challenges and opportunities related to innovation and investment into sustainable plastics in the U.S. The findings from these dialogues as part of our research will be released in a white paper in early 2022, but here’s a sneak peak of what we heard:

1. Most investment to date is focused on end-of-life solutions for plastics.

While there are emerging innovations in reuse and alternatives to plastics, the most significant investments and focus on innovation appear to be on resolving the end-of-life challenges for plastics. Full system change would require significantly more investment in terms of retooling and redesigning our modern society and its manufacturing processes, rather than tackling change in just one aspect of end-of-life.

Additionally, as strategies to reduce plastics advance, there will still be a need to address the plastics already in our environment. 

2. High capital investments are harder to fund.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to hear those initiatives which require investment in capital infrastructure are much more difficult to fund – and attract less investment – than those in software or with shorter capital requirements. We see this already in national discussions around recycling and how best to update aging infrastructure to keep pace with the rapid speed of product innovation. Investment cycles tend to be short, yet the average time for scaling technology, like chemical recycling, is 17 years. Finding strategies that can help close this gap will have a significant impact.

3. Biggest roadblock to supplying used plastics for remanufacturing is collection.

Most innovators at our roundtables were not challenged with obtaining scrap plastics for remanufacturing and their source for materials came from establishing supply partnerships, most often with businesses that could offer pre-consumer plastics or locally situated recycling facilities. So, while access is not necessarily lacking, a consistent, predictable supply and the ability to manage materials was. This indicates that suppliers need a better way to collect, sort, and deliver or sell used plastics to those who are using it for remanufacturing. 

Given that most of the innovators participating in our workshops have reached success in the pilot phase and are receiving material through established supply partnerships, we can’t help but wonder how early-stage innovators are gaining access to materials and if we need to do more at the pilot stage to prove the viability of using post-consumer materials that tend to have more quality issues.

4. Gaps in innovation occur in two key areas: moving from concept in the lab to prototype in the real world, and moving from the pilot phase to full scale commercial venture.

In both cases, funding gaps exist because they are the areas of greatest risk. Additional funding sources to supplement federal funding  is beginning to increase but transitioning from pilot project to commercial venture is still a challenge to most innovators. While many innovators we spoke to noted the increase in incubator programs  over the past decade and the essential value these initiatives serve, most agreed that support to attract and maintain financing – and funds to grow beyond the pilot phase – is difficult, especially if investment requires significant upfront capital investment. More support here could help reduce the average time spent moving toward commerciality. 

Although we have just begun our dialogues, we have found these discussions rich in ideas and insights. Those who have attended have told us they have found tremendous value in learning from other innovators and sharing common challenges and successes. As we move forward with our roundtables, we welcome participants and contributors who represent innovation with manufacturing sustainable plastics. We’re seeking innovators from all sectors (packaging, textiles, construction, and housewares) and those across the value chain providing raw materials, products, and end-of-life solutions. If you have any questions about the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Sustainable Plastics Innovation effort or want to get involved, please reach out to me at kfisher@uschamber.com