Plastic Opportunities for Change

April 14, 2017

Creating a perfect world of circulating resources is an enormous challenge, but the benefits of being able to succeed with resource recovery and reuse are both exciting and imperative if our global community is to function with an improving quality of life. When evaluating our main waste streams and material categories, we know that virtually everything has value and can be harnessed for circulation if the processes and infrastructure is available to do so. This includes solutions for paper, metal, glass and organic material. Plastic, however, poses a separate, large-scale challenge for us all, which is only now becoming apparent, and an environmental hazard along the way.

Plastic is an amazing material, with so many good uses, but its “after-life,” in the form of plastic pollution, might be creating one of the most vexing issues of our time. Plastic has a half-life which far exceeds that of carbon, it is highly durable, complex in its make-up, widely diverse in its types, light weight, and hard to recover economically at scale. These traits create daunting challenges for scaled recovery, and as the world’s population grows, with an increasing consumption of goods that are made of, or packed within, plastic, the burden on our communities continues to increase. The quest for reduced carbon use in transportation, production and packaging has exploited many of the “low hanging fruit” opportunities that plastic and light-weighting have provided, but have now left us with tough questions of where to go next, and how to recover this permanent material which we use in a plethora of non-permanent ways.  

The recovery and circulation of plastic waste, however, also poses some large opportunities for the engaged leaders in business, innovation and policy who see this blight in our environment and waters continuing to grow. Those who lead in the use of bring-back programs, optimizing reverse supply-chains and home “recovery/collection” programs to complement deliveries, will be well suited to inspire, recruit and engage communities who now recognize unsustainability, but who may not know how to act on it efficiently themselves. Collectively, we need to encourage thought leaders, innovators and social-change experts to collaborate with the “Elon Musks” of the world, companies who can run (and benefit from) the programs, and the policy makers who can facilitate laws and regulations which make material recovery a priority. These improvements can and should be considered regardless of the size of the company, or whether they operate in villages, towns, municipalities or nations.

Whether or not the ocean and our waters upstream are drivers for needed improvements in plastic pollution reduction, the health of our communities, and the customers we all need, should be incentive enough to demand and encourage management to really focus on being an active participant in the circular economy. Plastic pollution is now on the top of many environmental agendas, as it directly impacts the abilities of cities to be resilient, and “smart.” Governments can facilitate circularity and waste avoidance, but it is the private sector which will thrive on it once some good case studies are promoted, scaled and replicated. Two recent reports on plastic and the new economies that  come from it are relevant here:  one of which was launched at the World Economic Forum this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the “New Plastics Economy,” while the other was issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital, “Sea of Opportunity - Supply Chain Investment Opportunities to Address Marine Plastic Pollution.” These offer insights into sectors and solutions which can be focused on by companies big and small, hopefully inspiring the needed leadership in the private sector which can evaluate the net benefits that are created for our communities, customers and the environment, when making smart, enlightened decisions in their supply chain, processes and products, including consideration for their “after-life.” A report we initiated with Trucost for Dell and Algix on Net Benefit Analysis can help to explain the untapped opportunities here vis-à-vis a new method of calculating the value of positive externalities, leading to improved brand reputation, consumer empowerment and loyalty.  

Although the world is now more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change. Waste is a localized issue, and access to feedstock (material) for recycling or energy creation is dependent upon collection and recovery systems which typically do not exist yet in efficient forms, including even developed cities. There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the creation of waste from our consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume, but which can also incentivize and reward companies, governments and the communities to participate over the long term. This requires the minds, visions and acceptance by producers that they have a responsibility to the communities they serve, by taking care of the materials they disperse, even at the end of their initial life. This is where our Plasticity Forums come into play, with two being held in the U.S. this April and May, as they bring together experts across the plastic spectrum to speak about innovations and solutions, for a world without the waste footprint.

Education is great in our schools, and highly important, but unless all of the teachers in the world are taught about the complexities and importance of slowing plastic pollution for creating benefits in their communities, we will not get the scaled results for waste reduction across our countries that we need today. The momentum to get the wheels turning on true circulation is only just beginning, yet the urgency to do so does not seem to be apparent. This is where we need today’s leaders and doers from our private sector to kick into gear. When this happens, our communities, waters, the ocean, and our environment will all be the big benefactors of these improvements from a circular economy world.