Fireside Chat: The Role of Plastics, Producer, and Brand Leadership in Sustainability

April 28, 2020 • Posted in Fireside Chats, Trends & Updates

The influx of discarded plastics within the environment over the past few years has become a major societal focal point. As the world becomes more aware of plastic’s impact on the environment, the spotlight has shifted to the plastics industry, popular consumer brands, and producers to alleviate the problem.

In our latest Fireside Chat, we discussed how the plastics industry is coming together to proactively create solutions that support a more sustainable future around the globe with our panelists:

  • Sarah Marshall: Director of Sustainability, NOVA Chemicals
  • Scott Hammer: Corporate Sustainability Leader, Charter NEX Films
  • Lindy Holland: Market Manager, Sustainability, M. Holland

“Sustainability is a global challenge, stemming predominantly from developing countries that weren’t managing their waste– something that affects us all as consumers,” Marshall said. “Previously, North America was sending our recyclables all around the globe. Eventually, Canadians were finding our shopping bags in the Philippines and everyone started to realize that we needed to take action on the home front too.”

Collaborative Leadership in Sustainability

Recognizing the need to be a leader in tackling this global challenge, the plastics industry is using its unique position in the supply chain to collaborate with producers and brands to determine solutions that are environmentally friendly and economically viable. This balance is tough to strike because our current supply and demand chain isn’t designed with sustainability in mind. But two radical concepts are taking hold in North America that aim to address supply and demand chain issues.

  1. Developing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Systems
    “We know we have supply challenges and we know we have demand challenges. Something is broken in the middle and needs to be addressed,” said Marshall. One way to address these mid-tier issues is through EPR programs, which aim to change the traditional model of curbside recycling funded by local municipalities and taxes by placing responsibility on the producer of the packaging. This system would alleviate the burden on already-stressed public systems and provide packaging producers with a stream of recyclable material that can be re-used in new product packaging.

  2. Creating a Circular Economy
    The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with government, educational institutions and businesses to establish a foundation for what it believes to be a critical answer to the plastics waste problem: a circular economy.

    A circular economy is built upon the premise that products must be designed with sustainability in mind to ensure there is both value and purpose in product and packaging materials beyond their initial intended use. For plastics, that means plastic molecules should have value after their first use.

    The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has encouraged a large commitment from several big players in the industry. “Retailers and brand owners are making sweeping pledges and promising to make their products more recyclable, integrate more recycled content, and ultimately understand what happens to their products after the intended use,” Holland said.

For promising and innovative concepts like these to take hold, it’s going to take the plastics industry’s collective leadership and influence throughout the entire supply and demand chain.

Brand Responsibility: Paying the Price, Committing to the Consumer, and Educating the Public

In addition to the plastics industry’s commitment to sustainability, many brands have pledged to create fully recyclable or reusable products in the coming decades. However, “brands don’t want to give up on anything related to the performance of a product or package,” Marshall said. She added that aesthetic, barrier, shelf life, and cost were critical for brands, but that cost was an underlying deterrent because sustainable materials come at a premium price point.

“It’s simple economics,” Holland continued. “When we’re talking about the quantity and quality of recycled streams in addition to new innovation in bioplastics, understanding what it’s going to take to fund those spaces and grow them is a different conversation,” she added. However, resin producers and manufacturers can play a role in making sustainable materials more attractive to brands through innovation – not only in recycled content but in a material’s performance, as well.

Brands will also play a key role in the future of recyclable plastics. Hammer stated, “it’s important for brands to begin looking into utilizing sustainable plastics because of the commitment they have made to consumers.” He continued stating that making claims and showing that they are listening while trying to incorporate anything they can from a sustainability standpoint will be crucial.  

According to Hammer, brands should also be investing more in product packaging recycling instructions and leading consumer education around recycling and sustainability. Holland agreed and added, “waste is not waste until it’s wasted.” Most consumers in North America don’t have the knowledge needed to understand the intricacies of recycling beyond the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle. An uninformed population contributes to the challenges the recycling industry faces today, and brands can be at the forefront of that solution.

Promising Sustainability Solutions

Despite challenges related to the state of the current recycling ecosystem, recycled material costs, and consumer education, panelists were optimistic for a more sustainable future. According to panelists, some of the most promising sustainability solutions today include:

  • Mechanical Recycling of Flexible Packaging: Historically, consumers have been not been allowed to recycle flexible packaging through curbside recycling programs. However, a new process called “material recovery for the future,” run by a materials recycling facility (MRF) in Pennsylvania could make curbside flexible packaging a reality. The facility incorporates optical sensors to create bails of flexible packaging. Hammer said that Charter Nex Films is looking forward to running some resin that comes from a bail of flexible packaging to discover how it processes.
  • Chemical Recycling: According to Holland, chemical recycling is a promising prospect to close the circular economy loop. It takes post-consumer waste that otherwise would be landfilled or diverted and breaks it down to base monomers that are able to be reincorporated into a feed stream to create virgin plastics once again.
  • Other Advanced Recycling Technologies: Within both the mechanical and chemical recycling innovations, there are other advanced technologies being developed. One example is a new recycling technology called hydrolysis, which uses water to help break down polymer molecules. “This is the holy grail of advanced recycling technologies,” Marshall said. Some aspects of this advanced recycling are already in the demonstration scale today; however, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out some previous Fireside Chats:

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