Plastic, it is one of the most widely used materials in the economy, and as we are coming to understand through various studies, it is quickly becoming one of the greatest challenges that need to be addressed. Many use cases for plastics are unrivaled in its properties and price. It is everywhere that we look and people continue to consume and make, from large uses to the small consumables that often proves the hardest to manage.
The challenge to taking action though, to date, is that while there is wide agreement on the impact of plastics in our oceans, and the potential for adverse impacts on our own health, the size f the challenge is so wide spread that that regulating a single industry or point a finger at a single location, would be impossible. It is a byproduct of our consumer society, but the systems that are failing are complicated and that has allowed for the challenge to grow in size without much action.
The obvious problem with this is that without coordinated action, plastic consumption (and waste) will continue, which is why the recent announcement by representatives from China, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia to take measures to begin addressing this challenge are encouraging.
It is an announcement that we felt at the very least represented the first step, recognition of problem, that could lead to action, but given our recent research on waste, we wanted to offer a few thoughts about the challenge that lays ahead when it comes to truly solving this problem.
Beach Cleanups and Recycling Campaigns Aren’t the Answer to Plastic Waste
While these kind of activities serve a very important purpose in driving understanding and engagement on the topic, and these activities are able to help keep a small portion of the waste entering our oceans from RE-entering it, but to think they are the solution is wrong. For starters much of the plastics in the ocean doesn’t even reach the beaches, but are swept into one of the ocean gyres. Gyres that are not only growing in size, are becoming their own ecosystems.
Recycling itself serves an important focus but to rely on consumers to be the answer to separation inefficiencies is misguided, instead there should be a focus on addressing minimization or reuse or to facilitate a market for the materials to drive increased rates, as is so well illustrated through Shanghai’s informal waste network.
A Strategy is Needed
A clear and multi-stakeholder strategy is urgently required to address the growing problem of the plastics problem. The Ellen MacArthur foundation in it’s New Plastics Economy has estimates that 70% of plastics have an economic incentive to be reused or recycled but the remaining 30% needs a fundamental redesign. For some firms, that will mean working across their value chain to understand how to dematerialize their products, i.e. remove the waste before it can become waste, while for others it will mean finding ways to recapture the waste that is created by their value chain.
Progress won’t come from one stakeholder or group, but will require a combination stakeholders to come together to tackle the issues and within business areas work throughout the production, sale and treatment of plastics should be developed to best address the issue.
The Opportunity for Business Leadership and Innovators
While the numbers may be scary, for entrepreneurs and innovators these should be something that excites them with opportunity that the demand for new, cost competitive materials will grow. Large companies, who operate with a compliance mindset, are increasingly coming under pressure to realign and address the waste they are creating, and more and more that is leading them to look to entrepreneurs to find solutions. Be it to develop a new material or business model, and consumer and companies are ready to get on board.
There are already a number of start ups and large companies that are creating new products of schemes that address this issue head on and are achieving steady growth. Companies include: Ecovative Design, a company substituting polystyrene with mushroom based fibers; Phillips have developed a products to service system that sell lights instead of light bulbs; and Patagonia, the leader in circular textiles design who design for long life and durable clothing with repair and resale options.
For many of these efforts, they were start off as a small project within the firm, but hopefully these investments will lead to a change in process that removes plastic from the process or finds ways to source waste plastics. Something firms like Interface, through their NetWorks program, and Adidas through their Parlay shoe, are starting to show is possible.