But to achieve these benefits, business have to massively scale up these efforts.
“There are many blockers to scaling up sustainable plastics,” Trucost chief executive Richard Mattison told Environmental Leader. “Lack of investment, lack of awareness, lack of credibility and lack of knowledge sharing are combining to mean that small scale innovations do not become widespread. This is a classic innovation problem. The best ideas don’t always win. Our study highlights sustainable plastic innovations and illustrates what would happen if they were scaled across their respective industries.”
Circular economy approaches such as closed-loop recycling, plant-based plastic and biodegradable polymers can reduce the environmental cost of conventional, fossil fuel-based plastic. Not enough companies, however, are pioneering these new processes and technologies.
Scaling Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics towards a Circular Economy includes case studies of companies that have worked with Trucost to measure the environmental benefits of such initiatives, including computer giant Dell and clean technology company Algix.
For example, Dell’s OptiPlex 3030 computer is produced using recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment from its own take-back program. Trucost’s environmental benefit analysis identifies environmental cost savings to society of $700 million per year if the entire computer manufacturing industry switched to closed-loop recycled plastic.
Scott O’Connell, director of environmental affairs at Dell, says his company has experienced “significant benefits” by employing a circular economy approach. “Our closed loop plastics supply chain enables a resource-efficient product made from recycled content that costs Dell less. Companies need to realize sustainability programs are just good business.”
Algix makes a low-carbon polymer called Solaplast from algae. Trucost estimates that if the footwear sector switched to Solaplast, it could reduce its environmental cost by $1.5 billion per year. If the soft drinks sector used the algae-based plastic, it could deliver $1.3 billion in benefits.
The paper also identifies barriers that are preventing business sectors from scaling up use of sustainable plastic. A major one is waste management. The economy undervalues waste plastic, Trucost says, because the market does not price in environmental costs such as climate change, human health impacts from petrochemical plastic production, or the damage done to the marine environment by plastic waste.
One solution is for policymakers to provide an incentive for companies and consumers to recycle it into new products and to reduce the need for virgin polymers. This would also encourage the switch to plant-based and biodegradable-plastic, the report says.
“Companies stand to benefit from access to new markets and revenues alongside brand leadership,” Mattison said. “Our vision is that the benefit of sustainable solutions is clearly and robustly defined. Simply put, we want to enhance the traditional business case with the environmental and social business case. There is a huge opportunity for companies to tap into new pools of capital that seek green impact and such measures could help investors to clearly define solutions that need to be funded, for example through green bonds.”
The report follows an announcement from Ford that it is developing new foam and plastic car components made from carbon dioxide. Meanwhile plastics recycling and technology company MBA Polymers recently started what it says it the first commercial production line in the world manufacturing post-consumer plastic pellets from shredded e-waste.
So some manufacturing and recycling companies are scaling up their sustainable plastics efforts. Let’s hope others follow suit.
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