Few Things Last Forever—Unfortunately, Plastic Comes Close

Few things last forever—unfortunately, plastic comes close

There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal. Like so many people, we aim for that. But hectic schedules and/or lack of energy to plan, shop, and cook lead us to grab take-out, order delivery, or pick up a roasted chicken from the market, and fairly often. That means bringing home big plastic containers, along with the plastic forks and knives that restaurants toss into the bag. That’s in addition to the plastic bottles, cups, and other containers that are part of modern life. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, largely driven by growth in emerging markets. Before we criticize the developing world, guess which country owns the shameful title of “most plastic waste generated per person”? It’s the U.S., at a staggering 1.33 pounds per person, per day. The U.K. is runner-up. 

If you think you’re making a real difference by looking for the triangular “recycle” symbol and diligently placing recyclable containers in a curbside bin, we have bad news: recyclable doesn’t mean recycled. According to the OECD, only nine percent of plastic waste is recycled globally; in the U.S. it’s only four percent (another unwelcome distinction). Most plastic ends up in a landfill or floating in the ocean (which creates an entirely new set of problems worthy of a separate discussion). The statistics are depressing, as are the images of plastic trash heaps that will never decompose (at least not for a few hundred years). This is clearly not sustainable—eventually we will run out of places to put our plastic trash.

At OWL, we always seek to discuss ESG issues objectively. We avoid extreme positions but do not downplay real problems or stick our heads in the sand hoping that things will get better with no effort. We acknowledge that for the past 50+ years, plastic has helped us to safely contain and protect our food (of course, civilizations thrived before plastics—we just used other things, like aluminum, cardboard, and glass). Plastic packaging can help to reduce food waste, which accounts for as much as one-third of the food produced in the world. In other words, we’re not saying we need to get rid of all plastics, but we cannot maintain the status quo. 

Bury or burn?

Globally, over one million plastic bottles are sold every minute. Keep that in mind when taking in this fact: almost every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some form, except the roughly 10 to 12 percent that has been incinerated. Don’t even think of burning your household’s plastic in a metal trashcan in your backyard – that releases toxic chemicals. Modern incinerators have largely addressed that problem, so leave that to the professionals.

Why not use the heat generated by burning plastic to generate electricity, a form of waste-to-energy? Unfortunately, according to U.K.-based independent consultancy firm Eunomia, heat from plastics burned in incinerators that is directed to power plants achieves a 25 percent efficiency rate, much lower than the 55 percent efficiency of new gas-fired power plants. BBC News quotes Eunomia as saying that, after coal, incinerating waste is the most CO2-intensive form of generating electricity. 

Perhaps surprisingly, one could argue that burying plastic waste in a landfill is actually an inexpensive form of carbon capture and storage. But again, it’s not a great solution. Plastics in landfills break down into tiny toxic particles that contaminate the soil and waterways, and enter the food chain when animals ingest them. 

That leads us to ask the following: If the world’s scientists can build incredibly sophisticated space telescopes, precise gene-editing tools, and sub-atomic particle accelerators, can’t we find a better way to package our food?

Seeking Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste Leads to Opportunity

Given the environmental problems plastics create, consumers want solutions. And we often say, and fervently believe, that paying attention to ESG issues is not just about managing risks (although that is an important consideration); it’s also about opportunities. Companies that look for ways to improve sustainability also find ways to improve profitability. Case in point: McKinsey recently published a study on packaging sustainability that shows the following:

Source: McKinsey & Company

Perhaps not surprisingly, the purple “line of best fit” through the points on the graph (which we added) shows that the more the people are concerned about packaging sustainability, the more they are willing to pay for sustainable packaging. 

What may not be so obvious is that the line does not intersect with the “origin” (i.e., the (0,0) point in the lower left corner); it has a positive y-intercept. Here, that suggests that even people who have few concerns about packaging sustainability are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging! There’s an opportunity here for companies that make it a priority to use less plastic (and less packaging overall) and make it clear to consumers that they are doing so intentionally.

Innovative companies that “carpe diem” (or “seize the day” for those who haven’t seen the movie) to find ways to improve plastic’s recyclability and/or use less of it can gain consumer loyalty, increase market share, and may even develop immensely profitable new businesses. Here’s just one exciting example: The World Economic Forum announced in April 2022 that a research team at Rice University has discovered that heating plastic in the presence of a certain chemical creates particles that are able to absorb carbon dioxide. This carbon capture method could be up to eight times cheaper than current ways of removing CO2 from natural gas feeds.

Regulations and voluntary efforts

McKinsey also studied regulatory developments in this arena across 30 countries. All but one of the countries studied have started to discuss and implement sustainable-packaging regulations. These regulations may restrict what materials can be used at the beginning of the packaging lifecycle (recyclable or biodegradable?). They may also focus on waste management via what is known as extended producer responsibility (EPR) to help end-users sort and dispose of various types of packaging. Getting out in front of this issue can help companies reduce the cost of regulatory compliance, which can boost profits.

Separately, over 500 businesses and governments representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which was launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme. It aims to eliminate plastic we don’t need, innovate to ensure the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and promote a circular economy that keeps plastics in use instead of in landfills. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published an Upstream Innovation Guide to Packaging Solutions that appeals to us by stating upfront, “This guide is not about the state of global plastic pollution — it’s about solutions.”

To learn more about OWL’s data can help you to identify companies that are working to reduce plastic use, find innovative ways to use plastic waste, and offer better approaches to packaging, contact us