Plastics Innovation Can Create Opportunity for Business and the Environment

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation launches new sustainable plastics initiative

As our physical footprint became smaller in the early days of COVID-19, our eyes were opened to the environmental impact we make with our everyday decisions. The pandemic has heightened our environmental awareness, and changed the way we live and consume. It has also changed our relationship to plastics, whose importance rose as the world raced to manufacture PPE supplies and other essential equipment to protect people and contain the virus. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us more appreciative of the value of plastics in providing hygiene and basic health, and medical care and protection. Plastics have helped us support local businesses. But we have also seen the damage mismanaged plastics can have. Increased PPE casually discarded, littering in our parks and beaches, are impacting our wildlife and the sanctity of these spaces. Our garbage is overflowing with plastic packaging and other impacts of our consumption. The pandemic has created a tension between the increasing value of plastics and the need to improve their end-of-life management.

As we emerge from the pandemic and plan for recovery, the U.S. Chamber Foundation believes achieving a long-term sustainable future for plastics will be critical to our ability to compete on the global stage. A 2020 survey by Morgan Stanley indicated that investors identify plastic waste and climate change as a priority for investment and risk assessment. Helping to identify what is happening in sustainable plastics innovation, where we need to do more, and how we can better integrate innovators with investment can help us emerge from the pandemic with increased opportunity to place plastic sustainability as a recovery priority. 

Too often we are focused on end-of-life strategies or alternatives and are not looking across the full value chain—but to tackle the plastic waste challenge, we will need a systemic approach that considers everything from materials engineering and industrial design to consumer use and recycling infrastructure. That’s why the U.S. Chamber Foundation is pleased to announce a new sustainable plastics initiative to help us harness the full potential of plastics while ensuring we plan for their end-of-life management. 

This initiative will explore innovations across the plastics value chain, all the way from material science to end-of-life reuse and repurposing. In mapping this progress, we hope to uncover existing strengths and gaps to help identify where resources could drive the biggest impact. We also plan to connect innovators with philanthropic, private and government investors to expand investment opportunities in sustainable plastics. Lastly, we intend to convene multi-stakeholder dialogues so that investors and businesses can clearly communicate the opportunities and challenges they face in making the plastics value chain sustainable.

Plastics innovation is already reshaping industries and enabling sustainable value chains. In Michigan, an initiative by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is working with local stakeholders to use discarded plastics in road construction. Third-party research indicates polymer asphalts are more durable and produce less greenhouse gases than traditional asphalt. With the federal government launching an infrastructure program with a focus on upgrading roads, this type of innovation may offer significant opportunity to reduce waste and environmental impact while enabling us to use materials in new ways.  

After halting the use of personal cups during the initial days of the pandemic, Starbucks recently announced the launch of a new reusables program. ‘Borrow a Cup’ lets consumers choose a reusable mug over disposable cups. After use, consumers simply return it to any participating Starbucks story where the mugs will be industrially cleaned—addressing the hygiene concern that led to the halting of personal reusables in the first place. Innovations and investments like this will help ensure reusables can gain a greater market share and not become niche to certain markets or retailers.

Ford Motor company recently partnered with McDonalds to convert their coffee chaff (the skin of a coffee bean after roasting) into a durable material used in the manufacture of headlamp housings and other interior and under hood components. By transitioning from a mined product to food waste, Ford has reduced its cumulative emissions and environmental footprint. The added bonus of this sustainable alternative was increased clarity, permitting for brighter vehicular headlamps. McDonalds was also able to reduce its waste sent to landfill.

Digimarc has developed new technology that provides digital watermarks on plastics, offering the potential to improve the sortation of plastics. Improved sorting could reduce plastic contamination, increasing the value of plastics for reuse and increasing the volume of plastics recycled – also helping businesses reach their recycled content goals.  

Whether it be innovation in materials, product design or end of life, there is a strong desire by consumers, businesses and governments across the globe to use materials responsibly and create sustainable value chains. The pandemic has shown how integral plastics are to our everyday lives and how essential its end-of-life management is for a sustainable economy. We are excited to announce the launch of our sustainable plastics initiative to help advance this dialogue, expand innovation, and provide the necessary support tools to bring innovation and investment together to help create a circular future. 

To learn more about our initiative, please contact kfisher@uschamber.com.

Kyla Fisher is the Sustainability Fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.