Can the plastics industry create a collaborative model for change?

ShutterstockPierre Sabatelli

Product manufacturers and brands long have recognized that plastic is one of the most effective and valuable materials in the market, due to its cost, durability and ability to be formed into so many shapes and sizes.

However, as technology improves and polymer varieties increase, including with nano-materials, so too does consumption, as well as complexity for recovery.

As a result, many also recognize that plastic has an image problem, largely linked to its ubiquitous nature, and to its propensity to be used to make disposable, single-use products. This tends to be further exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure to properly recover, convert and reuse much of that waste in other viable applications, or because of the lack of education or knowledge on how to discard waste materials properly.

As the world’s population grows, a rapidly mobile and financially stable middle class is emerging in much of the world. Those people become consumers who want products that the developed world has enjoyed for decades. This inevitably means that waste will grow proportionally. However, resource recovery is rarely given the focus it deserves to prevent impacts on water quality, health and livelihoods. 

A lack of resources, or direct focus on the issue from governments, means that our waterways often become the waste-removal mechanism for many of our communities. This practice impacts our collective livelihoods in many ways, including water quality, tourism, health, and the ecosystem we rely on, yet addressing this multi-sourced problem is a complex task.

To address this, because no one pillar of society can fix this issue on its own, innovative and scalable collaborations between industry, governments and the community are starting to take shape in interesting, beneficial ways that benefit all parties involved.

As you might imagine, integrating different stakeholders to work together and take action is a difficult endeavor. Building trust among these groups is paramount, and maintaining an agreed-upon, collaborative agenda is the key in keeping each stakeholder group engaged. This is tough, when ideas easily can get “lost in translation” as delegated tasks are misunderstood or face internal politics.

An appealing trimumverate

Creating alliances is not new, but the benefits they can bring are needed, now more than ever, because usually none of these individual “pillars” can create the scale of positive change needed in our resource constrained world.

Fortunately, the intersection of business, community leaders and NGOs and the government is increasingly gaining prominence when parties are shown the potential for large scale change which is repeatable in many communities.

The triumvirate then becomes an appealing working model. Dealing with plastic pollution, while harnessing waste as a resource, is one of the big opportunities of the coming decades.

The recent study by the University of Georgia's College of Engineering estimated that over 4.8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within roughly 30 miles of the coastline. Globally, some 280 million tons of plastic is produced annually, yet estimates suggest that only 10 percent actually is recycled.

Capturing this waste stream presents a significant and untapped business opportunity, as does the redesign of packaging and the thought process around waste recovery and resource maximization.

Waste should have no natural enemies, as few effectively can argue that having more waste is a good thing. However, the old models of simply burying or burning material are no longer sufficient, and these methods leave opportunities for money, jobs, innovations and improved livelihoods on the table.

Solving the ‘plastic puzzle’

The Plasticity Forum, now in its fourth year, is a unique collaborative forum which brings together a wide spectrum of experts operating within the “plastic puzzle” of commerce. The three critical pillars for creating new models include corporate and entrepreneurial leaders, government and civil society, all addressing logjams in our markets, legal and regulatory barriers for technical innovations and programs where scale can be expedited.

The journey to creating new models of engagement are not linear or steady, but they need to happen at a more aggressive pace, and doing so is good business. With joint cooperation between groups that leverage each other’s influence and capacities, all parties can benefit, including the communities they operate within, creating a circularity which often has defied our business operations of today.

Plastic waste is a unifying challenge we all face, because virtually every company and society uses it in some way, yet we have not focused collectively on how to recover it at scale, so that its value is maintained after its initial intended use. Plasticity was created to foster a shared foundation and fertile soil for these new collaborative models to be built, sparking a change in mindset for creative solutions that all are proud to be part of, and which consumers seek to support.

Not many countries are prepared for the World Bank’s estimated doubling in municipal solid waste within the next 15 years, so being in front of the curve with solutions that can help reduce this waste stream, of which plastic is the toughest to handle, will be a great advantage to any triumvirate entities who are part of these new solution-providing collaborations.

The fourth annual Plasticity Forum, June 8-9 in Cascais, Portugal, brings together industry leaders, brand managers, educators, think tanks, government agencies, designers and investors to discuss plastic waste as a resource, scalable recycling innovations and plastic designed for sustainability. For tickets and information, please visit www.plasticityforum.com

Tags: