Published 4 years ago.
About a 7 minute read.
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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
every piece placed in our blue bin or purchased at the convenience store has
even greater potential to add to the ocean gyres and
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
Here are just a few of the innovations eliminating the idea of [plastic] waste.
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
Zipcar may not immediately come to mind, but these
examples of sharing-economy
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.
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
features hundreds of consumer goods housed in durable
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.
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
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
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)
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,
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.
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.
(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
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
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
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
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
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.
Published Aug 12, 2019 6am EDT / 3am PDT / 11am BST / 12pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.