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Four Steps to Prepare for the Low-Plastic Future

[Editor's Note: This article follows earlier coverage on how chemicals and the toxicity of products have become strategic issues for businesses. Posts by Joel Makower and Richard Liroff are available at]

The FDA's reversal of its decision on BPA is one more sign that the way we use plastics today may be on the verge of a significant shift.

More and more studies are implicating plastics in health problems ranging from reproductive disruption to obesity to ADHD to cancer. The FDA has vowed to be more responsive to health concerns about plastic. And consumers have shown that they will respond quickly and dramatically to perceived health threats from products, especially when risks are higher for children, as they seem to be with plastic.

{related_content}It seems clear that the more we learn about how plastics affect human health, the more urgently we may try to usher in a "low-plastic" future. Businesses that see this future coming can minimize their risk and even gain a competitive advantage by acting now.

There are four specific things companies can start doing now to prepare:

1. Map Out Your Plastic Footprint

Given that one of plastic's main charms is it cheapness, it follows that companies who rely heavily on plastics in their products or processes will face significant cost exposure if forced to substitute other materials, whether because substances are banned or because their use becomes a hot button for consumers (or because the price of plastic increases significantly).

An assessment of the usage of plastics and plastic derivatives in your company and throughout your supply chain will identify the areas of greatest usage (and potentially exposure) and is further likely to highlight opportunities for no-regrets actions to optimize material flows.

2. Identify Good Substitutes and Start Using Them Now

Exploring alternatives to the plastics you currently use is another no-regrets option. The investment required is typically quite low and the benefits can be huge: Having a clear understanding of the options and the pros and cons of each helps identify where further investigation and investment may be warranted and will set you up to make decisions around materials substitution quickly in the future.

Where the material properties of plastic are particularly important, some bio-plastics may be good substitutes to explore. However, note that there remains debate as to the true environmental and health impacts associated with plant-based polymers.

Where the affordability of a plastic substitute is paramount, durable materials that can be reused should be examined. For example, for some operational applications, consider investing in non-plastic reusable containers for appropriate stages of processing or transportation.

The up-front investment will likely be higher but per-use cost can be comparable over the useful lifetime of the container -- and cost of disposal at end of life will likely be lower overall as well.

3. Engage Your Supply Chain

Start a dialogue with your suppliers now about their use of plastic and the potential implications of a plastic phase-out. In particular, consider how plastic is used at the linkage points in the supply chain and convene the relevant players to explore options for alternatives that work well for all parties involved.

Some non-plastic solutions, such as reusable interim packaging or shipping containers, will require buy-in from and coordination with all suppliers involved at that stage in the process. Further, in some cases shared investment will either be required or will be beneficial in securing lower prices and better terms.

4. Think Systemically

Fundamentally changing the flow of materials in your operations is an enormous undertaking -- but the implications for the system of material flows as a whole is even more massive.

For many materials, their relative cost is not fixed, rather it is largely determined by the nature of their flow in the system (scale production, efficiency of processing and amount and type of by-products, end of life disposal options and costs, geographic factors and more).

As a result, it is imperative to consider the systemic context in which the material is currently produced, used and disposed of. Where barriers to potential solutions exist at the system level, firms should seize the opportunity to collaborate to overcome these hurdles and accelerate the development of solutions that benefit everyone.

An Asbestos Rerun?

Evidence is mounting that plastic chemicals (BPA, phthalates, PCBs, PVC, PBDEs, and many others) act as endocrine disruptors which, even in small doses, can be extremely disruptive to fetal and child development. But simply avoiding exposure to these chemicals is not so straightforward.

There are some clear things that one can do to reduce exposure, but the ubiquity of these chemicals in everything from food and beverage packaging to furniture to toothbrushes makes reducing total exposure a truly daunting undertaking. Plastic is deeply embedded in how we live and do business largely because it is extremely cheap (for now) and because it enables things we like such as disposability and convenience.

It is the ubiquity of (read: dependence on) plastic up and down supply chains combined with its emerging toxicity concerns that is worthy of attention.

One instructive example of an analogous situation from recent history could be the widespread use of, and then ban on, asbestos. Through the 1970s, asbestos was used in everything from buildings (insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, plaster and many other building products) to household products (hair dryers, irons, toasters, coffee pots and electric blankets) to cosmetics and powders.

As evidence of its toxicity emerged, the EPA regulated use and ultimately banned asbestos use completely, leaving companies scrambling for substitutes and dealing with massive liability lawsuits, thousands of which are still making their way through the courts today.

The Coming Shift

There are a number of early signals that more than a few people are interested in bringing low-plastic life into the present tense.

Several books on the topic are getting attention, including "Slow Death By Rubber Duck" by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie and "Exposed" by Mark Schapiro. Consumer awareness is on the upswing as well: Good Guide, an online guide that helps consumers choose "safe, healthy and green products" is one of several websites which flags plastic chemicals as ingredients of concern.

Entrepreneurs sensing this shift are already staking claims, offering plastic-free products where alternatives are limited. For example, Life Without Plastic and No Plastic both offer a range of plastic-free products such as food and water storage containers, toys and child and baby care products. Born Free is one of many companies specifically offering plastic-free baby products (as well as some BPA-free plastic products).

It is worth noting that a near to medium-term shift away from plastic could be driven by other factors as well. Plastic is a petroleum by-product which means its appealing cheapness is a result of current oil prices and level of oil consumption. A significant shift in either could cause plastic prices to rise enough that companies would face the same challenges as those caused by limitation of use for health reasons.

A low-plastic future would have serious implications for businesses, but many businesses are focusing on the micro-threat (e.g. -- how to deal with BPA right now) rather than the big-picture trend and how that is likely to change business as usual for them over the next five to 10 years.

Will plastics be urgently and completely yanked out of usage in products and operations just a few years from now? Or will small tweaks in current chemistry and new materials allow for a gradual and painless shift away from the worst offending chemicals?

It is impossible to know, but savvy companies know that uncertainty about the future is no reason to delay thoughtful action today.

Ellie Moss is a consultant with Blu Skye, a strategy consulting firm focused on advising Fortune 500 companies on sustainability.

Images by contributor MeenaInc.

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