Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Solving the Problem of Plastic Waste Is About Value Creation

Plastic in and of itself is not the problem — creating value for it is key to ensuring it doesn’t just get thrown “away.” Here are just a few of the innovations eliminating the idea of [plastic] waste.

People are awake to the issue of waste. Three years ago, people didn’t understand the issue of ocean plastic, and now they do. In our day-to-day lives, plastic is everywhere, but with China no longer buying our recyclables, every piece placed in our blue bin or purchased at the convenience store has even greater potential to add to the ocean gyres and microplastics making their way into our food chain.

Though it may seem like the right thing to blame the existence of the material itself for these issues, plastic in and of itself is not the problem — it’s the fact that it is so often treated as if it is disposable, designed to be used once and is not typically widely accepted for recycling.

We know plastic never fully breaks down. Wasting plastic isn’t just a loss of time, energy and finite natural resources, but active degradation of our planet and voluntary contribution to the climate crisis. Creating value for it is key to ensuring it doesn’t just get thrown “away.”

Here are just a few of the innovations eliminating the idea of [plastic] waste.

Reduce, reuse — and reduce some more

At TerraCycle, we may be known for “recycling the unrecyclable,” but reduction prevents waste from occurring in the first place. For consumers, this may mean buying less and looking to borrow or reuse instead of buying new. For brands and industry, this means creating consumption models that require fewer plastic resources.

Ride- and car-sharing services such as Lyft and Zipcar may not immediately come to mind, but these examples of sharing-economy models offer access to goods without ownership, offsetting the need to purchase. One less car on the road equals less of the gas, maintenance and water required to produce it, let alone drive. And since plastic makes up roughly 15 percent of the average car by weight, it fits.

Design differently

Packaging design is changing minute by minute, and many upgrades are doing away with plastic entirely. S’well and Klean Kanteen are popular brands of stainless-steel beverage containers replacing the disposable water bottle, also moving away from other reusable plastic bottles on the market.

But again, plastic isn’t the problem. TerraCycle’s new circular shopping platform, Loop, features hundreds of consumer goods housed in durable versions of their previously single-use packaging. The products are offered in a combination of glass, stainless steel, aluminum and engineered plastics. The durable plastics are designed to last up to 100 uses; and when they do wear out, we recycle them, cycling the value of the material continuously. 

Go naked

Farmer’s markets and craft fairs still sell their wares “naked” before they offer you a plastic bag, but there was a time where the consumer was responsible for bringing their own containers. The point of packaging is that it makes it easier and more convenient to buy goods, in addition to allowing inventory to be distributed, so reducing or doing away with packaging needs to create value (aka sell and be profitable) in order to work and be sustainable.

Lush Cosmetics makes little to no packaging work as an extension of its brand identity. In addition to reusable metal tins, colorful cloth knot-wraps, and 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic pots (some of it ocean plastic), 35 percent of Lush products are sold “naked,” allowing consumers to touch and smell in a retail experience that harks back to the shops of yore. Competitive with premium natural care brands, going package-less illustrates Lush’s ethos and serves as a model for others in the industry.

#RecycleEverything

Everything can be recycled — it’s just a matter of someone being willing to pay for it, which is why so many plastics aren’t. To solve for their plastics, some producers of consumer goods work with us to sponsor the collection, logistics and processing for TerraCycle’s variety of national recycling programs, made free to consumers. Through these programs, individuals and groups send in items including food and drink pouches, cosmetics packaging — even cigarette butts, the most littered item in the world.

But with so many complex plastics in the world, there isn’t always a sponsor for its solution. Our highly customizable Zero Waste Box™ (ZWB) platform is another way for brands and businesses to offset their plastic impacts by offering it as part of their product lines at retail. Events, factories and public facilities also use it to supplement waste-reduction efforts for visitors and employees, solving for common streams such as packing and shipping material, breakroom items, and research disposables (i.e. gloves, disposable clothing, pipet tips).

In areas of the country where recycling is entirely lacking, or certain plastics are not accepted (dark and colored plastics are not recyclable most places [more on that shortly], and some places don’t accept #5, for example), ZWBs are a solution for residents and businesses looking for the public system to catch up.

Invest in recycling technologies

Recycling more plastic is hindered by the fact that most recyclers don’t want it. Using post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials can present challenges with color, aesthetics and feel. In manufacturing, there is a need to find more end markets for colored and opaque plastics, as these are considered difficult to recycle because they are less versatile than clear, or virgin, plastic. 

Chemical recycling (depolymerization) is one option to decolor recycled plastics, but that certainly requires more infrastructure investment. These processes have the ability to remove pigments, dyes and additives to produce “virgin-like resins” that are competitive with virgin raw material. 

For example, Procter & Gamble recently invented the PureCycle Process and licensed it to PureCycle Technologies to open a plant to restore used polypropylene (PP, or #5 plastics) to “virgin-like” quality and remove colors and contaminants.

Explore new “plastics”

There is promise in exploring new materials — such as bioplastic derived from natural, renewable feedstocks instead of petroleum; and biodegradable plastics that supposedly break down in the natural environment, with considerations. 

Consumers certainly connect with the concept of a plastic made from plants, but before we go any further, humanity has pretty much maxed out agricultural land. Offsetting demand for petroleum-derived plastics with plant-derived bioplastics would call for millions of additional acres of agricultural space. The technology exists for things such as fruit juice waste, sewage, algae, pine trees and straw, but the infrastructure isn’t there.

Moving on to biodegradable bioplastics, the compostability of compostable plastics is akin to the recyclability of plastics in general. All can be effectively processed, but most compostable plastics need an industrial facility. They won’t break down in your backyard pile, let alone the ocean or in a landfill, and there are only a handful of composting facilities in the United States.

What’s more, many composters don’t want this in their piles, because most so-called biodegradable plastics don’t break down into nutrient-rich material as, say, food scraps or yard clippings do.

What producers can do in this area is ensure their exploration of new materials is in line with the system as it is currently. Club Coffee — a major Canadian roaster, manufacturer and distributor of packaged coffee — created the world’s first 100 percent compostable, BPI Certified, plant-based coffee capsule, an item once called the “environmental boogeyman.” The pods break down in as little as five weeks without releasing toxins in the earth, or a composter’s product.

This innovation, like all of the best innovations in plastics, account for the inputs of all stakeholders. Governments can certainly drive change by subsidizing research and incentivizing environmentally preferable use of material to ease the financial risks. What’s key here is the creation of value for consumers, governments, businesses and investors around solutions for the plastic pollution crisis, to ensure it works in the world as it is, to create the space for even greater systems change.

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