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:
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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: