Sustainable Solutions for Design, Materials, and End-of-Life Recovery of Plastics

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s fellow leading their work in sustainable plastics innovation, I had the honor of judging the Plastic Industry Association’s ReFocus Sustainability Innovation Awards. This year, the association received a landmark 52 entrants across three categories: Design, Materials, and End-of-Life. The design of the awards intentionally reflects the value chain process for plastics: what is chosen for raw materials and design will influence the end-of-life options for plastics.

I must admit, serving as a judge for the awards renewed my enthusiasm for the promise of sustainable plastics. Too often we focus on the negative externalities mismanaged plastics have on our environment and fail to focus on the promise of plastics innovation. For example, one of the applicants submitted a bio-based plastic redesign for medical equipment to help open blocked airways. Redesigning with bio-based plastics had made their product 90% cheaper, 95% lighter, waterproof, and easier to use. The redesign was intentionally created to provide greater access to lifesaving equipment in developing countries. Writing this as Indonesia and other developing countries struggle with COVID outbreaks, it was not lost on me the value of this product. I found their approach to help those most in need balanced with an interest in using bio-based and recyclable plastics inspirational. It pointed to how we can merge social, environmental, and economic considerations through a sustainability mindset.

A number of applicants offered new alternatives to conventional petroleum-based plastics through innovation with bio-based inputs. Ford Motor Co. won the Materials award for its partnership with McDonald’s to use the franchise’s used coffee grounds as a replacement for talc in creating headlights. Not only did this solution help reduce a waste stream and replace a material with some negative health impacts, but they were able to create an end product that was stronger and brighter than the former design. While this was a win-win, it begs the question of scale; if used coffee grinds are proven a successful alternative to talc in other plastics manufacturing, what do we need to consider to ensure there is sufficient collection and distributions of these grinds for further scale and reach commercialization?

In the design category, Garcon Wines won for their efforts to redesign traditional spherical glass wine bottles into plastic, flat-shaped bottles better suited for the complex challenges of shipping liquids through e-commerce. The e-commerce distribution chain is vastly different from traditional retail. On average, products shipped via e-commerce are moved and touched 400% more than those in traditional retail. This increased movement and vibration through multiple delivery formats raises the risk of product damage for more fragile materials like glass. Garcon Wine’s design reflects careful consideration of how new distribution models may require a shift in design and approach to ensure product protection. As e-commerce grows, we should be asking ourselves, what other products will require redesign and what impact will this redesign have on our material recovery systems?

Plastics are not uniform but rather, made up of many different resins. Manufactured plastics can be mono-material—making use of one resin only or multi-monomer using two or more different resins to create a final product. In many cases, recycling is dependent on identifying the underlying resin as mixed resins can hinder reuse. Digimarc’s watermark would allow high speed recycling facilities to install sensing equipment that could “read” the resin composition of plastics to help ensure plastic products are directed for recycling accordingly, cutting down on the risk of cross-contamination. This type of innovation increases the value of recyclables thereby improving the quality and potential return on investment for recycled content. 

As a judge for the ReFocus Sustainability Awards, seeing how businesses are rising to the challenge to ensure we can still retain the value of plastics while working to reduce their negative externalities is a reminder why innovation is a key strategy towards a sustainable solution. Though, with every innovation, we need to understand the innovation model. Solutions in one area will need to be explored for unintended consequences in other areas across the value chain. Support to scale successes that prove efficient will also be required to ensure that we can take a concept and advance it to commercial use for greater adoption. 

Exploring the state of plastics innovations against these complexities is why our efforts at the U.S. Chamber Foundation are valuable. Providing a roadmap that identifies where investment can help close the “innovation gap” will help direct limited resources to areas most in need of scale and advance many of the promising initiatives we are beginning to see.