As issues caused by plastic waste and climate change come to a head, finding new uses for end-of-life plastics and other materials will be vital to achieving a low-carbon future.
The world has a trash problem, and it’s impacting our planet’s health. In recent years, there has been a promising surge in awareness and drive toward devising a solution — from young inventors to coalitions of business leaders investing in collective action, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. But what if our work to reduce plastic waste in the environment and advance a circular economy went a step further to also tackle greenhouse gas emissions?
As an industry of material science leaders, we are just scratching the surface of packaging solutions that can deliver a more sustainable planet. In fact, plastic is the optimal material for transporting goods due to its light weight that helps keep emissions low. My colleague, Mike Witt, recently explored how plastic is an unlikely warrior in the fight against climate change in this Environmental + Energy Leader opinion piece. Mike has identified the following key thought processes in rethinking plastic waste to curb CO2:
We need to invest in circular solutions now
What if products and materials that often end up as trash instead found multiple lives as new products, while also reducing emissions? Scientists, practitioners and young innovators — working side by side through collaborations such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership — envision a world where every material is threaded into a circular cycle of use and reuse. This concept is already taking shape. Multiple lives for plastics are being realized through same cycling for flexible packaging, as with Kashi's Bear Naked packaging; and upcycling plastic feedstocks through pyrolysis, for example.
Investment in expanding these circular solutions is key to climate action. Research from McKinsey & Company and C40 Cities points to waste management as one of four key pillars that cities can act on to reduce 90-100 percent of their emissions by 2030. As issues caused by plastic waste and climate change come to a head, finding new uses for end-of-life plastics and other materials is vital to achieving a low-carbon future.
What’s more, a circular economy is critical to creating products that support human life in addition to a sustainable planet. Unilever recently shared the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s findings that humans have the potential to eliminate 45 percent of all emissions by 2050 by building circular economies for cement, aluminum, steel, plastics and food. To that end, Unilever has reported a steady reduction in its volume of plastic used, from 700,000 tons in 2017 to 690,000 in 2020. This work is integrated with a ramp-up of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic use, currently at 11 percent and projected to be 25 percent by 2025. It’s smart business: Circular supply chains represent up to $120 billion a year in economic value.
Cross-industry collaborations and partnerships are key to effective circularity & innovation
Reduction in the level of emissions can be achieved by working across industries to invest in collaborative circular solutions. For example, other packaging materials such as paper have a significant impact on carbon emissions due to high water usage in production. Waste streams from these paper manufacturing process can, however, provide benefits to other end markets. Biotech companies such as Finland’s UPM are working to create alternative, renewable sources for plastic through waste materials that produce biofuels such as bio-naphtha — which demonstrates a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, the residue that UPM utilizes comes from sustainably managed forests.
Finding new solutions for other types of material waste is just as important. In fact, food waste feeds climate change and contributes to 8 percent of our planet’s total GHG emissions, according to a recent UN Environment report. Research from the EPA found that food waste makes up 28 percent of municipal solid waste in these landfills. Additionally, methane gas from food and organic waste is 86 times more potent than CO2 to the atmosphere.
Plastics companies are critical partners to mitigating the food waste challenge, considering approximately 25 percent of residential food waste is related to the size and design of packaging. Advanced packaging designs are capable of salvaging 280,000 tons of food waste, worth an economic value of $882 million. And business collaborations across the food and packaging industry — such as Loop and Imperfect Foods — are poised to tackle food waste and climate change in a two-fold solution: upcycling groceries delivered with sustainable packaging.
Advanced recycling: The latest innovation
Mike Witt’s call for courage in new technologies is the foundation for any sustainability-minded engineer that is looking to revolutionize climate action. It’s a mindset that we bring to our work at Dow every day; and most recently, to our investment in a new technology called advanced recycling.
Advanced recycling (aka chemical recycling) aims to enable all plastic categories to be readily recycled. Imagine if we could go from 10 percent of recyclability with our current systems, to 90 percent of recyclability leveraging both mechanical recycling and advanced recycling to capture all of our plastic waste. The sum of these plastic parts, now recycled, could be a game-changer for reducing carbon emissions on the whole and providing new pathways to manufactured articles.
As a packaging industry, we are working tirelessly to identify innovative technology to improve recycling infrastructure, product design and alternative materials to advance circularity. Dow’s drive for science and invention is at the heart of our product development. Our efforts will not only reduce waste in our environment, but also give our planet a fighting chance to mitigate climate change.