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24 Mar 2021

Plastics and Business. How Do We Make the Best Choices?

Luke Baker

Plastic is all around us. It’s in our clothes and toys, as well as our furniture, cars and cell phones. If you want an example of how much it dominates the products we buy take a look at cars, plastic accounts for up to half of their volume, yet only 10% of their weight. 

The desirable properties of plastics have left us thoroughly hooked. The problem is that plastics are having a growing climate effect. In fact, by 2050, plastics are predicted to be 10-15% of all CO2 emissions, and by 2100 it could account for more than half of the carbon budget(1). 

More than 99% of all plastic produced today is manufactured from fossil fuels. The chemical reaction to create plastic is in short the bonding of carbon with oxygen and hydrogen. As a result of this reaction around 50% of the carbon is actually stored in the plastic, rather than being emitted during production. 

This brings us to the second big issue with plastics, the carbon really doesn’t like to let go once it has bonded with the oxygen and hydrogen and this means plastic sticks around for a long, long time. This property of plastic has made how we dispose of it critical and unfortunately, we’ve not been doing a great job. It’s found everywhere, including in microparticles in the air we breathe as well as huge floating landmasses of the stuff in the ocean. There are about 8 million tonnes of plastic that make its way into the ocean every year(2).

What can businesses do?

The answer is not straightforward and we’ll only touch on a couple of areas in this complex space. However, there are definitely encouraging developments.

Material substitution

The first step for companies is to look at whether they can substitute plastic for other, non-fossil fuel-based materials that breakdown over a shorter time period. The good news is there are a growing number of companies providing services around lifecycle analyses of products to answer exactly this. What's more, innovative alternative materials are coming to the market all the time. 

Remember glass?

Remember when you used to get your milk delivered in bottled glass? No, me neither, but sometimes the past is a good thing to take inspiration from. Glass is derived from sand rather than fossil fuels. The only issue with glass has been the huge amount of energy needed to produce it. The glass industry is however starting to experiment with alternative fuel sources to reduce its footprint. Carlsberg is trialing the production of low carbon glass through the use of biofuels cutting the carbon impact by 90%. At the same time, these bottles are being made from 100% recycled glass. 

Bio-based materials

One particular type of plastic which does not recycle at all is styrofoam. Here plant-based materials are starting to emerge to take over. A good example is Bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane production. It’s compostable and recyclable which makes it a sustainable replacement for the ubiquitous styrofoam takeaway container. Another company called The Magical Mushroom Company is using, you guessed it, mushroom fibres alongside agricultural waste like hemp, cork and sawdust to do similar. We’re even seeing coffee mugs made of coffee bean waste!

Another approach being taken is to look at what we can do to reduce the damage being done by plastic to our environment.

Biodegradable plastic

For companies who struggle to find suitable alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials, there is at least some progress being made on the huge waste problem plastic causes. A company called Polymateria from Imperial University in the UK is changing the fundamental makeup of fossil-fuel based plastic to make it more conducive to breaking down safely (no microplastic waste). These plastics can still be recycled but if they do make their way into the wrong bin or the ocean they can be designed to degrade over six months to three years, rather than sitting around for hundreds of years. Whilst this is by no means a viable long-term solution it can offer at least some respite from the chronic microplastic waste issue. 

Limiting the damage from plastic production

As for eliminating the GHG emissions during plastics production, our only option currently is direct carbon capture technology. This is where the carbon dioxide emitted from the production of plastics is captured and stored in liquid or solid form. This technology, whilst currently too expensive, has real promise and requires bold companies to partner on developing it further to help reach scale and drive down costs. One of the leading companies in this space is Global Thermostat, already working with refining facilities in the states.

And finally, if we currently don’t have alternatives available to plastic let’s at least make sure it is reused or recycled as many times as possible. 

Recycling

Currently, in the UK only around 14% of plastic is being recycled, with 40% going to landfill, 32% back in the environment and 15% incinerated. For companies whose plastic products or packaging cannot easily move into standard recycling pathways, there are short-term solutions they can take. TerraCycle is helping businesses find and operationalise bespoke pathways for their packaging to be recycled. What’s more, the company has an extensive network of avid recyclers to maximise the chances of it getting disposed of correctly. This can provide an intermediate step whilst new, more circular product material innovations come down the line. 

Plastics have found their way into our daily lives in so many ways, but there are multiple pathways to a better future. Business is already experimenting with alternatives, prolonging plastics lifetime (or shortening it) through careful material selection and developing the infrastructure to recycle at scale. On top of this businesses can help educate employees and customers to ensure that every piece of plastic that does get produced is utilised for as many product life cycles as possible by disposing of it correctly. In short, if we all work together, we got this! 

Would you like to learn more about the companies innovating to net-zero? Check out Reset Connect’s Sustainability Ambassador Interviews, where we are finding out first hand how much opportunity exists in sustainability. Sign up for our newsletter to be informed when new videos are out and to receive the latest articles and sustainability inspiration.  

*Sources

https://rethinkplasticalliance.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-February-2019.pdf

https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics#:~:text=Over%20300%20million%20tons%20of,waters%20to%20deep%2Dsea%20sediments.

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