April 22, 2020 • Posted in Market Insights

An Honest Look at Sustainability in the Plastics Industry

Across the globe, people and nations are grappling with a new challenge: stopping the spread of COVID-19 and keeping communities safe. International communities are finding emotional connection through mutual fears and experiences, which underscores how we are all in this together. It is through crisis moments like these that we truly realize it takes action from everyone to solve a global problem. M. Holland views the world’s sustainability challenge with a similar sense of urgency, particularly as it relates to plastic and its role as both a force in protecting the health of the planet and as a sustainability concern.

The Flip Side to Plastic’s Durability and Ubiquity

Plastics have prevailed over other traditional materials because of their affordability, durability and adaptability to meet the needs of discreet applications. As a result, plastics products are ubiquitous. These products fill our homes and offices, and, ultimately, landfills. With a low specific gravity, they float on water and in the air, presenting a visible reminder of the threat plastic waste poses to the environment. 

The COVID-19 crisis is emblematic of the paradox of plastic waste. On one hand, plastics packaging and single-use plastics are a solid-waste challenge. On the other, they prolong food life and promote necessary hygiene in fighting the pandemic. The future of plastics is symbiotic with sustainability: we cannot make progress toward a more sustainable world without plastics, and our industry cannot grow without a concerted focus on environmental responsibility.

The Infrastructure Challenge

An obstacle in addressing the solid waste challenge is the disparate state of global supply chains and infrastructures.  For some developed countries, including Canada and the United States, it has been more economical to export mixed waste to developing nations rather than incentivize or invest in recycling and reuse solutions. Meanwhile, some developing countries importing plastic waste lack the infrastructure for refuse collection and disposal. This has led to dangerous levels of plastic pollution in waterways and oceans. To combat this primary source of river and ocean pollution, we must come together and commit to helping these nations build scalable infrastructure. Several large chemical and plastic resin producers, for example, have invested in Project STOP, an initiative to design and implement solutions to reduce marine plastic pollution, with a primary focus area of Indonesia.

Another challenge to sustainability has been the disparate approaches pursued by different links in the supply chain. Up until recently, resin producers, product manufacturers, brand owners and waste haulers have pursued sustainability challenges independently. But with plastics under fire, market forces are beginning to push collaboration within the supply chain in regions that lack legislative mandates. More and more, consumers are demanding environmentally-friendly products and punishing brands that fail to respond. Investors, too, are more apt to value companies with environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies, which include sustainability. Likewise, companies today are compelled to pursue sustainable solutions to attract and retain a younger generation that has deep environmental concerns.

Distributors such as M. Holland are stepping into a new and pivotal role in facilitating sustainability solutions. As conduits between resin producers, molders and brand owners, distributors have unmatched visibility of the supply chain and are in a unique position to foster collaboration and connect industry needs with effective solutions. 

Cleaning Up

A key step in solving the solid waste crisis is cleaning up existing pollution. One source of plastic pollution is pellet leakage, where plastic pellets are unintentionally released into the environment during the movement of the material. Called “nurdles,” these leaked pellets are not only manufacturing waste, but they are a particularly visible suggestion of industry indifference to the environment. Many of the world’s largest and most credible chemical suppliers and manufacturers have put in place stringent procedures and monitoring policies to stop pellet leakage. And they have formed a coalition called Operation Clean Sweep to drive industry compliance with best manufacturing and logistics practices. M. Holland is an Operation Clean Sweep member, as are our Gold Standard logistics partners. One of those partners, G&D Trucking, Inc./ Hoffman Transportation LLC, recently became an Operation Clean Sweep Blue member, the most recent and rigorous version of the program.

Cleanup efforts also are underway in the waterways and oceans. The Ocean Cleanup is a great example of how global collaboration can help solve a big problem. This organization aims to remove 90% of ocean plastic through developing advanced technology and equipment designed to capture waste from oceans and the waterways that feed them.

Beyond Recycling

While recycling is the most visible and promoted solution to plastic waste, it has limitations. Plastic waste streams typically contain comingled types of plastics, which generally aren’t compatible with one another. Plastic collection and separation are difficult and expensive. Also, plastic products are generally comprised of more than neat resin and contain pigments, fillers and chemical modifiers, which present recycling challenges. Food and chemical contamination also can impact recyclability. Even in countries with mandated recycling, recycling rates typically peak around 60%.

Many companies are pursuing technological solutions to supplement recycling efforts. Companies such as INEOS are investing in chemical recycling ventures, which are developing methods to depolymerize plastics back to their basic elements, which can then be reprocessed into prime plastics. Other companies are exploring pyrolysis, using heat to convert plastics into fuel.

Circular Design

Perhaps the best opportunity for a united supply chain to help drive a circular economy is through innovative product design. More and more, resin producers, product manufacturers and brand owners are cooperating to design products with end-of-use in mind. One example is in multi-layered films, which have been difficult to recycle because they typically contain non-compatible resins. Companies are now cooperating to develop films made with compatible resins to make this type of packaging more recyclable.

Additionally, designing products that require less plastic, furthers sustainability progress. Additive manufacturing is creating new possibilities for mass reduction, allowing engineers to manufacture to optimal product design, rather than designing to the limitations of traditional manufacturing.

Elevating the Conversation

To solve a global puzzle as complex as the sustainability challenge requires everyone’s attention and commitment. To garner that level of commitment, we must elevate the conversation about sustainability and treat it as the global crisis it really is. We at M. Holland are determined to drive that conversation and to accept the responsibility of our role as a conduit in connecting sustainability needs and solutions. Our industry and planet depend on it.

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