The Future Of Plastics

Plastic remains commercially viable, but environmental concerns are beginning to tip the balance

Plastic is having a moment. But not in a good way. In recent months, consumer and media attention has singled out this once wonder material as the scourge of the planet – and for good reason. Along with their manufacture from non renewable fossil fuels, many plastic items take around 1,000 years to decompose, and microplastic pollution has been found throughout the world’s ecosystems. But there is another side to the story. Plastics became so key to our modern lives precisely because of their useful properties: namely, an adaptability for just about any purpose and a low cost to produce.

In light of these facts, businesses now need to navigate a confusing space. Cutting down on plastic use is a step in the right direction – and not only to appease angry consumers – but alternative materials must be found. DISRUPTIONHUB spoke to Mark Lancelott, plastics and sustainability expert at PA Consulting, the innovation and transformation consultancy, about leading businesses towards sustainable plastic solutions.

Recycled or just recyclable?

One of the main current challenges around plastics revolves around recycling. While the EU Waste Management Directive of 2008 includes targets for its members to recycle 50 per cent of household waste by 2020, recycling policies vary wildly according to local authority. The range of different types of plastic and labelling complexities only adds more fuel to the fire, leaving consumers confused about what they can or can’t put in their collection bins.

For Mark Lancelott, these issues place a huge barrier to recycling in front of individuals, even when they are looking to do the right thing.

“The whole labelling world is confusing,” he says. “There’s different recycling paths in different parts of your life, whether that’s at home or in your office or when you’re out and about. It’s not clear. We need to recognise that people are busy, and though they may want to do the right things, if we make it hard for them it tends not to happen. There’s a whole piece about how do we help people who want to do the right thing, which I don’t think is there yet.”

“Secondly, we have to consider the capacity and the infrastructure for recycling. Where there are things that are recyclable, they often don’t get recycled because there aren’t the recycle paths in a particular region or there’s not an aftermarket that’s got value around it. This gives us a challenge around linking or giving greater visibility across the whole supply chain.”

Starting the conversation

According to Lancelott, a global look at the plastics supply chain reveals a lack of communication between product designers, policy makers, recyclers, and materials innovators. While these parties operate in the same space, they often have different priorities. This makes the pursuit of the sustainability agenda even more complex.

“It’s quite apparent that there’s work going on around material innovation and looking at alternatives to plastics,” he says. “But you go and talk to recyclers and people who are developing recycling technology and there’s a whole different set of considerations and priorities. There’s very little connection between them. So some of the biomaterials that are getting talked about look like they have good credentials, but again – talk to recyclers and they say actually, we can’t differentiate this from other plastic, so how are we going to be able to sort it and then recycle it?”

A failure to communicate within this value chain typically stems from the different objectives of the parties involved. Manufacturers are used to dealing with their suppliers and customers, but they don’t have any kind of commercial relationship with the recyclers at the other end of the chain. Making these connections and starting the conversation is therefore crucial.

“How sorting and cleaning happens, the ‘dirty end’ of recycling, needs to be much more visible,” Lancelott says. “We’ve started to take some of our product designers to show them what happens in end of life paths. That’s always quite an interesting experience for them as they see things they’d never have thought of. It’s then easier to factor in commercial considerations – the choices you can make earlier on in the value chain, which have implications at the end – into business cases.”

A global issue

With the use of plastics a global environmental concern, it is encouraging to see worldwide initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Launched in October 2018, the Commitment boasts signatories from some of the world’s largest brands including Danone, Mars and Unilever, who pledged to create a ‘new normal’ for plastic packaging. While this kind of agreement signals good intentions to eliminate single use plastics and seek viable alternatives, and was endorsed by PA Consulting, Lancelott notes that many companies did not feel able to sign.

“It’s quite interesting that some of the big brands who didn’t join, did so because they couldn’t see how they could commit or demonstrate that their products would be recycled,” he says. “They didn’t have those relationships and didn’t know that the infrastructure would be in place to do it. They could produce recyclable products but then it is difficult to ensure that they are actually recycled in practice.”

With stories of recyclable waste being incinerated or shipped abroad for landfill, governments have a clear need to tighten up their recycling policies. Legislating to restrict the kinds of plastics that are produced is an option, but authorities need to work together with businesses.

“Discussions are underway to simplify what goes into recycling paths so it is easier for recyclers to sort and get value from those different plastics,” Lancelott notes. “It will be interesting to see whether that ends up with a coherent set of limited choices or whether it’s more a kind of free for all. Particularly when biopolymers and alternatives come into play, this will create complexity in the supply chain by adding more variety.”

“We therefore start to say, will there be a shift from policy makers to restrict choice, and do we do this on a regional level or in some kind of global agreement? If I’m a big brand who manufactures on a global scale, there’s an added layer of how different regulatory regimes and governments set these things out that has to be managed as well. If you look at financial services, for example, and what’s happened since 2008, the US, the EU and others are going in slightly different directions. They’re openly saying, as regulators this is what we want to do. We recognise that it’s not joined up, that if you’re a global bank it’s going to cause you problems, but that’s what we’re doing. So these things happen.”

Life in plastic, not so fantastic

In the context of current public opinion, it’s not a great time to be a plastics manufacturer, consumer goods company or packaging firm. But citing plastic as the world’s most pressing environmental problem does these businesses a disservice. Yes, plastic has its issues, but it is also low cost, uses little energy to produce, and helps to combat other serious environmental and social issues such as food waste.

“Last year we talked to a number of companies who voiced this concern,” says Lancelott, “that some of that consumer and media response is in some ways unfair, because plastic in itself is a material that has lots of great properties. Used and disposed of in the right way it creates lots of benefits. It’s used in food packaging for very good reasons – it leads to improved food life. So if you move away from that to different materials, there’s a trade off potentially around increased food waste.”

“It’s easy to make an announcement and move to paper bags,” he continues, “you’d probably get some kind of positive media response – but you’re potentially creating a problem elsewhere. It’s a difficult thing to navigate. In my conversations, people feel frustrated that that mature debate isn’t being played out in the media. And therefore how do they respond, how do brands respond? We might take the lead in setting out some kind of trade offs in the media and consumer world.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle – or replace with an alternative

Given the useful properties of plastics, any replacement materials evidently have a large remit to fufil. Are there any plastic alternatives that Lancelott and his team are currently particularly excited by?

“We’ve got a couple of projects at the moment with seaweed alginates, which is quite exciting,” he says. “We’ve done work with Skipping Rock Labs who are a London based startup using seaweed alginate as a liquid container. It’s very much trying to get rid of plastic water bottles when people are out and about.”

Unlike traditional plastics, these alginate based materials are hyper compostable. This means that they degrade very quickly, and can be placed in home compost bins with fruit, vegetables and food waste. As Lancelott notes, the term ‘hyper compostable’ may be unfamiliar to many, a fact which points to wider confusion around the recyclable status of many materials.

“There’s a need for education and better labelling and standards,” he says. “At the moment, as consumers, people say “Oh this is compostable and therefore it’s good, I can chuck it on my compost heap or in my green bin at home.” But actually what it means is that it needs to go to an industrial composting facility. It has to be sorted separately, which isn’t happening, and then in many regions there’s a lack of infrastructure – there aren’t these industrial composters to actually put these things into. It’s the same for materials that are biodegradable. Something that’s biodegradable could still take hundreds of thousands of years to break down.”

Navigating the business cost

As part of a new, nuanced conversation around plastics, it must be accepted that businesses looking to do the right thing also have to consider their bottom line. Pursuing any kind of innovation can be daunting – and expensive – so companies have to ensure that alternative materials or revised plastics strategies are right for them.

In many ways, this is where heightened public awareness can help. The growing number of environmentally engaged consumers is channelling purchasing power behind plastic alternatives, even when added costs are involved. This gives companies much needed confidence to make changes.

“Where consumers are making buying choices based on this, then there is a clear line of sight to revenue,” says Lancelott. “I think that’s important. I also think that some of these materials don’t yet have the same kind of cost-performance ratio that many plastics would, which have been perfected and have developed economies of scale over the last 50 years. But some of them – with the right investment and focus – can get to places where they’re viable.”

“There are also conversations to be had about packaging, and being clear what the real specifications are. In some cases things are over specified. You can end up with a specification that looks like what you can get from a plastic laminate, rather than actually serving the underlying need. If you unpick and understand the real specification then you can look at different cost profiles of what you need, rather than trying to do direct comparisons with the performance and value properties of plastics that are used today.”

As with many forms of disruptive innovation, this is about using new developments to rethink a problem, rather than trying to make old solutions fit an ever changing mould. While limited use of traditional plastics may still have a place in future, they will sit alongside alternative materials, updated recycling policies and other environmental and socio-economic considerations. In our complex global economy, making positive change isn’t always easy. But we need to start with holistic, grown up conversations, especially when it comes to issues as important as the fate of our planet.

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