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Plastics Industry Innovation: Toward a Sustainable Future

March 2020
Gert Herold
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Plastics Producers Look Beyond the Industry for Sustainable Innovation

In 1950, there was almost no plastic production in the world. Just 65 years later, in 2015, “over 320 million tons of polymers, excluding fibers, were manufactured across the globe.”[1] The use of plastics grew exponentially in a short period of time, but the revolt against plastic has begun and spread even more quickly.

“[There] is a worldwide revolt against plastic, one that crosses both borders and traditional political divides. … The United Nations has declared a “war” on single-use plastic. … The most astounding thing about the anti-plastic movement is just how fast it has grown.”[2]

The 20th century saw plastic revolutionize the world, as then-new polymers changed the way many products were made and used. In the 21st century, the world is pressuring the plastics industry to revolutionize because even though plastic products are useful in homes and businesses, plastics are increasingly polluting the world and having a harmful effect on it. The industry must change going forward, and it will require high-level leadership and talent to do so.

Plastics Are Polluting Much of the World

At both a macro and a micro level, plastics are accumulating in much of the world and having a negative effect on it.

Perhaps the most visible plastic pollution is in the oceanic garbage patches, where plastic waste is devastating marine life en masse. Particularly problematic in the Pacific Ocean, these expansive patches have entire products on the surface of the water, microplastics clouding the water itself, and, likely, large heaps of waste on the seafloor below the debris. Many animals, including birds, turtles, and others, have been found harmed or killed by this waste matter, and even more sea creatures are probably ingesting the microplastics as they swim through the region.

People don’t have to travel to the Pacific Ocean to see plastic waste that’s not biodegrading, however. A simple drive to the grocery store will likely reveal stray plastic bags, cups, straws, containers, and other items that have been littered around town.

Less immediately noticeable but just as disconcerting, plastics are also polluting terrestrial ecosystems. Microplastics have been found in soil, and multiple studies have shown that accumulation in animals has negative effects. Microplastics have been detrimental to the metabolism and health of animals, and they’ve even changed some animals’ behavior.

These reports and findings make it clear that the plastics industry must change, and pressure to create more sustainable plastic solutions is quickly mounting. As people learn that they eat and breathe in an estimated 50,000 plastic particles annually, there is an increasing awareness that the problems caused by plastics aren’t just limited to the environment. The problems are becoming personal, and public calls for change are growing.

Legislation Is Being Passed to Combat Plastic Pollution

Moreover, public outcry against the current production and use of plastics isn’t stemming only from environmental and public health advocates. The push for a plastics revolution is now a mainstream argument, and legislation is being passed to curtail certain types and uses of plastic-based products.

Most notably, the European Union has instituted a ban on single-use plastic bags like those used in many stores. These bags are no longer allowed, and people must either rely on paper or reusable bags instead.

In the United States, New York is the most recent state to institute a comparable ban on single-use plastic bags. Other states also have bans enacted or are considering such laws, and a number of local municipalities have their own regulations too.

The Plastics Industry Must Look for Solutions

In light of the growing evidence, sentiment, and legislation, the plastics industry has to look forward for solutions. Leaders and businesses in the industry shouldn’t mistakenly assume that the bans will stop with the current bag legislation, as this was simply low-hanging fruit that governments could address easily. As public opinion continues to develop, more legislation against various plastic products is likely to follow.

Broadly speaking, the industry needs to shift away from one-way plastic products that have short-term use and move toward more sustainable solutions.

Some plastic products, such as straws, cutlery, dishes, and cups, are already being replaced with alternatives that are either reusable (e.g., stainless steel, glass, and porcelain products) or compostable products (e.g., bamboo pulp and paper products).

While these alternatives are helpful, they obviously aren’t ideal in all situations.

For consumers, there are reasons why many plastic products are favored over alternatives. Plastic insulates well, doesn’t break easily, and is generally impermeable, and none of the aforementioned alternatives have all of those qualities.

For people and businesses in the plastics industry, most of the alternatives currently being used aren’t plastic. That’s simply not good for business, and the industry must adapt if it hopes to continue to survive and grow.

The Circular Economy Holds Great Promise

One place that holds promise for the future of the plastics industry is the circular economy. In essence, this is a recyclable-friendly model that allows plastic products to be reused. The circular economy provides the shift that the industry has to make from single-use products to more reusable and sustainable ones.

Moreover, it’s not just industry insiders who see promise in the circular economy. The European Union recently held a breakfast debate on plastics recycling, and the governing body has stated that the circular economy is an integral component of Europe’s long-term plastics strategy.

Moving toward a recycling-based circular economy won’t be an easy transition for the industry, however. According to the EU, only 6 percent of the plastic used in Europe is currently recyclable. Increasing that to a much more sustainable number will require quite an effort ― and those in the plastics industry will have to collaborate with businesses from other industries.

Specifically, this effort will require cooperation from all of the following:

  • Plastics manufacturers who will implement helpful changes and shift their product lines
  • Chemical specialists who can assist plastics manufacturers in developing new polymers
  • Research labs that can develop new ways of producing recyclable plastics
  • Recyclers who have to increase the overall recycling capacity and create better sorting methods
  • Marketers who can grow the demand for multi-use plastics among the general public

To bring this all together, businesses in the plastics industry also need visionary executives who can coordinate between multiple companies and industries ― and who can implement innovative changes to lead plastics businesses into a future that’s based on the circular economy.

Many Companies Are Already Pursuing a Recyclable Future

The good news is that many companies and other parties are already researching and/or implementing changes that will make the plastics industry a more environmentally and humanly friendly industry. The following are just some of the many notable projects that organizations in the industry have undertaken:

  • HP and Sims Recycling Solutions worked together to increase the recycling of specific plastic parts by eight-fold, from 40 to 320 metric tonnes.
  • Der Grune Punkt has demonstrated that post-consumer plastics recycling is not only beneficial but also cost-effective in Germany, in part because of CO2 abatement costs in the country.
  • Biocollection is pioneering a new way to recycle plastics that uses a catalyst to break down the polymer compounds, as opposed to shredding or using pyrolysis.
  • The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has developed a polymer that can be separated from additives, which should allow the plastic to be recycled rather than just downcycled to a lower-grade plastic.
  • Neste and Ravago have partnered together in order to recycle over 200,000 tons of plastic waste annually.
  • The U.S. Energy Department and American Chemistry Council have signed a memorandum of understanding in which the organizations committed to studying plastic recycling technologies together.
  • Berry Global and SABIC have expanded their ongoing partnership so that it now includes developing and using polyolefin resins that derive from chemical recycling.

Plastics Businesses Need Top-Tier Talent

In order to achieve the changes that must be made, plastics producers and others in the plastics industry have to look beyond just the industry when acquiring talent. Along with these sorts of partnerships, businesses will also have to find top-tier talent from other industries.

Some areas where plastics producers will find the highly qualified professionals that they need include the:

  • Chemical industry, where researchers who have specialized backgrounds in hard sciences can offer expertise in research and development.
  • Oil industry, where experts may be able to help producers better develop plastics from petroleum sources.
  • Recycling industry, where experienced leaders may be able to develop partnerships and find improved ways of recycling existing and new products.
  • Marketing industry, where advertisers have the skills necessary to grow demand for new plastic products.
  • Lobbying industry, where political influencers can help businesses work together with local, state, and national governments.
  • Non-governmental organizations, where professionals may bring a diverse skillset that help in one or more of the aforementioned ways.
  • Executive positions, where the best leaders from several different industries can bring the skills and knowledge required to lead plastics producers through this time of change.

Find the Right People for Your Plastics Business

To find the right people who can help your plastics business, contact a Stanton Chase consultant. We’re aware of the challenges that the plastics industry is facing and where it needs to go, and we have the resources necessary to help businesses in this space find the leaders and high-level professionals that they need to successfully move forward.

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/08/the-world-of-plastics-in-numbers
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/13/the-plastic-backlash-whats-behind-our-sudden-rage-and-will-it-make-a-difference

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