Plasticity Forum: Adidas and others find gold in plastic

Plasticity Forum: Adidas and others find gold in plastic

Plastic waste image by Tyler Olson via Shutterstock.

The issue of plastic waste has grown too large to ignore. As of 2013, 40 percent of the world's oceans surfaces were covered with floating plastic garbage of some sort, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Instead of burying their heads in the sand, companies, nonprofits and governments are beginning to not only address the issue but also seize the benefits from doing so. An international forum next month will bring these stakeholders together and highlight solution-driven thinking about plastic waste, while promoting the material's vast, untapped opportunity.

The Ocean Recovery Alliance is hosting its second annual Plasticity Forum on June 6 in Hong Kong to accelerate uptake of the sustainable plastics concept. Conventional plastic and bioplastics manufacturers, sustainable packaging and green branding gurus, waste management practitioners, NGOs, think tanks and government agencies will share at the event progressive thinking on new ways to harness plastic, both pre- and post-consumption.

Discussions will focus on design, packaging, materials, innovations, re-use and waste reduction.

The Plasticity Forum follows the success of its inaugural event at last year's Rio +20 Earth Summit, which showcased a cradle-to-grave array of sustainable solutions and plastic alternatives. In addition to the Ocean Recovery Alliance, organizers included Republic of Everyone and Applied Brilliance. The forum attracted more than 130 industry delegates, government leaders, educators and innovators from more than 15 countries.

"There are many sustainable ways of dealing with the use and re-use of (plastic) compared with the prevalent one-way use today," MBA Polymers founder Mike Biddle stressed after the 2012 event.  

Addressing the end-of-life waste issue at the conference, MBA Polymers demonstrated how its new sorting technologies recover and return virtually any type of plastic to a pure feedstock stream. This creates significant value for companies seeking to capture post-consumer waste from their products.

A compelling plastic alternative showcased at the forum was Ecovative's fungus-based home-compostable composite materials, designed to replace petroleum-based Styrofoam. Ecovative demonstrated how mushrooms and fungus are literally "grown" into products by using molds that the spores grow into.

"The brands that will win are the ones that admit the communities they serve have a problem with plastic waste; that take the lead in making improvements; and are part of that solution," says Doug Woodring, event organizer and co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance.

Leading the pack

By harnessing plastic waste streams, several brand leaders already have enjoyed substantial savings, while others are reaping lucrative rewards.

Plastic waste image by Tyler Olson via Shutterstock.

Major apparel brands, such as Adidas and Hagger, are winning the hearts of Gen Y consumers by weaving post-consumer plastic bottles into selected garments. Newer brands, such as Rethink, modeled their entire business model on the recycled plastic waste concept. Each Rethink garment is manufactured from 100 percent recycled PET. The garments, themselves 100 percent recyclable, are clearly labeled with a "bottle count."

Novel startups have glimpsed gold in the plastic recycling trend. Italian design firm Ginko has exploited the recycling niche with an umbrella that is 100 percent polypropylene and completely recyclable. At the other end of the spectrum, companies such as Method and Ecover are harvesting ocean plastic trash as a plastic source for their packaging.

Closing the plastic loop yields significant benefits, in many ways. Consumer goods behemoth Unilever has realized savings to the tune of more than $256 million from efficient use of materials and plastic waste capture since 2008.

Kicking the plastic habit

Companies that market their products globally will come under increasing pressure to factor product and packaging recyclability into marketing plans for both developed and less developed countries, predicts As You Sow, a U.S. nonprofit.  

"The link between poor recycling practices and ocean plastic has resulted in more than 60 cities in California and 100 cities in the U.S. banning or restricting use of expanded polystyrene food packaging, and another 28 California municipalities banning plastic take-out bags," noted As You Sow Director Conrad MacKerron at last year's Plasticity event.

Even major public utilities are taking a zero-tolerance stance. Chicago's two international airports recently banned plastic altogether.

The pressure from consumers and governments for plastics to become more sustainable is growing daily, be it through closing the life cycle loop, switching to bio-based and degradable plastics or opting out of plastic altogether. In response, several initiatives have been launched to address global dependency on plastic.

Both the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Disclosure Project, which formed an alliance during last year's Plasticity event, encourage companies and organizations to measure, manage and reduce their plastic use, and to channel any waste into a resource opportunity. The former targets education institutions and policy-makers, while the latter leverages the investor community to broaden transparency in reporting to include their plastic use and waste profiles. This shows good management, community engagement and brand value.

"Now is the time to scale-up new technologies, products and processes," Woodring says, "to the benefit of the brands, companies and municipalities who understand where the improvements can be made in a new world of resource management thinking."