To Transform the Plastic Crisis: First Invest in Innovative Product Design
(This is part of the series for 7 Main Areas of Focus to Transform the Plastic Crisis)
Innovation is number one as it includes action from practically every person, not just inventors and designers — though they obviously play a big part. We all can step up our game and commitments to increase collective investments in the number of innovative products and methods that reduce the amount of virgin plastic. Alternative products such as steel, bamboo, even avocado pits are being developed and considered. Innovative design also means doing things a little differently — instead of single-use packaging, there are attempts to use “return” systems just like the old milk bottles. And some innovators are working to change our idea of “ownership” and invest more in shareable technologies etc. The key impact of this category is how it enables reducing the use of virgin plastic and creating the waste stream at its source. With more available alternative materials both businesses and consumers can have an option to choose something other than virgin plastic.
As there are unlimited possibilities for innovation we can categorize based on role across the areas of focus:
These are all the non-virgin plastic alternative materials that are being researched and developed to use in many products and packaging materials. Among some innovative solutions are:
- Recycled Content — includes materials that are mixed with recycled material content — it could be 20% recycled plastic to 100% recycled plastic or 100% recycled paper.
- Recyclability — this is about manufacturers manufacturing their products with recyclable materials and contents. This category includes the “return scheme” as well — for instance instead of plastic containers using containers made from glass, aluminum or stainless steel.
- Bamboo — a popular and favorite alternative — bamboo as such a sustainable/renewable resource is readily available in many of the world and is mostly strong enough to handle much of what plastics do.
- Avocado — Avocado pits are used to make a completely biodegradable alternative to single-use disposable items. Currently on one provider exists, Biofase. More investments in technology can allow for multiple brands and farther reach.
- Coconut — Just as avocados, coconut skin is discarded by the thousands if not millions on a daily basis. With just some quick processing (no manufacturing) the husks are turned into bowls to replace the single-use plastics. Though first developed in 2010 there is little advancement in technology and availability due to lack of funding/investment. One company is CoconutBowls based in Australia. There is much room for innovation to extend the use of such a product into different areas and industries.
- Plant Based — many plants are being used to make packaging and other plastic alternative products. While corn and sugarcane are better used other plants include mushrooms, hemp, seaweed, fungi, starch (potato, taro etc.), food waste among others. More research and investments are required in these areas to develop biodegradable as opposed to just compostable alternatives.
- Spider Silk — Made from biomaterial due to its strength it can replace anything from plastics in disposable items to leather and other synthetic materials for the fashion industry. Currently under patent and distributed by one manufacturer in Europe — Inspidere.
- Silk from Cocoons — Silk, when brought to a certain consistency, has both the rigid, strong and the moldable, soft properties found in plastic. It has been a favorite in the labs of Tufts University being developed today to make single-use cups. While also being used for beauty products, silk derived from the empty cocoons make strong food wrap.
The possibilities are practically endless though there is much room for innovation and R&D in the area to identify and quickly bring to market the newer, better and more sustainable alternatives.
Production & Packaging
This category includes the materials used during production and packaging. This focus area mostly falls onto the hands of manufacturers and businesses.
- Avoid packaging materials — The first option is to invest in technologies, policies, and incentives that enable avoiding packaging products — from produce and food to toys and electronics — completely.
- Use alternative materials described above — Basically, there could be all the alternatives available on the planet but it is the manufacturers and businesses who make the decision what goes on the production line. Companies need to make product options available to customers for them to be able to make “smart choices.” If all the produce in a supermarket is in plastic packaging — even if the consumer brings their own produce bags there is little room for reducing plastic waste.
- Standardize plastic used in packaging — Another issue with production and packaging is to standardize the content and makeup of the plastic used in manufacturing the packaging — limit the labeling that can be used to avoid complicating and contaminating the recycling process. Alternately, invest in technologies that can easily either breakdown these components to re-separate them during recycling, or can recycle regardless of the mix to produce a standard quality end product.
- Many companies are making these smart choices — and below are a list of a few:
- Loop system — this is once more on the radar. They avoid plastic during the manufacturing and packaging phase.
- Products in the Cradle to Cradle Network — Cradle-to-Cradle certifies products that meet a predetermined standard in fitting into the Circular Economy.
- Other — please get in touch to add to the list.
Lifestyle & Consumption
This category mostly falls on the consumer with clear possibilities of support from local, state or federal governments. While ultimately the consumers are the “final” decision makers on what to buy — given that options are available — incentivizing the “smart” choices make a difference. Currently in many markets buying the more sustainable “nonplastic” alternatives can be seen as being “penalized” since they hold a higher cost — that they make up for in “value”. However, placing an additional tax to cover the collection and recycling cost on virgin plastic products, at least making them equal in price with the alternative, is a way to on consumer choice.
Not to mention that for consumers who have the option and the means of buying something that is a dollar more is an investment into the future of companies and businesses who make sustainable options the norm.
- As consumers bring your own stuff when going out. Aside from manufactured products, there is also a lot of waste that is created at the point of retail and consumption. Convenience is only convenient to a certain extent. Convenience stops when we start seeing pieces of these products in our drinking water and soil. Refer to my previous article on 5 ways to reduce the disposables and change your mindset and eventually the “disposables culture.”
- When making a purchase, opt to purchase an available product made with one of the alternative materials listed above. Products that have higher recycled content, or made of bamboo for instance.
- Aside from the type of product, there are also changes in consumption habits. Consumers can choose to participate more in the “share” economy rather than owning every product they would only need for a few minutes, a month, or even just for one year. Another option is to choose reusables over single use. Whether this is using your own coffee cup to fill at the Cafe in the morning, or requesting to use a reusable mug and having the drink there will still make a considerable impact.
- Choose products from companies who are investing in improving the current system — such as companies and their products that are in the Loop network. For consumers the purchase choice is power over businesses, it’s their voice. For instance — when in the market opt to buy milk that is in returnable glass containers over single-use Tetrapak or plastic.
- A very important topic under this is changing the way that we view our diet and food — especially with fishing. 46% of all plastic waste in in the Ocean is made-up of fishing nets and gear. Responsibility starts with the fishermen, commercial fisheries, and ends with the consumers. As with any practice — such as child labor — industry and fisheries need to commit to humane and sustainable practices without exception, while consumers must demand ease of tracking and transparency. It comes from every direction.
This category again provides an opportunity for all players involved -whether businesses, manufacturers, governments or consumers.
Businesses and manufacturers can work together with the recycling industry to provide a more cost-effective, efficient and convenient way to collect or return plastic material. Whether they are single-use or long-term products.
- Loop Companies — customers place the containers into the same bag they received them and leave them in front of their door for collection. While this is currently only implemented for reusable packaging, and not available for plastic, it seems to be a good opportunity for companies like Amazon, FreshDirect, and cooking companies to participate in — preset periodic delivery also means preset periodic pickup.
- Replenysh — this is a new company based out of California with services in various Mid-west states. On a small scale, partnering with certain locations, manufacturers, and businesses they provide convenient collection boxes for plastic bottles. And the bottles get picked-up by their network of drivers and returned to a recycling facility.
- Invest in collection centers such as SureWeCan! — While collecting plastics from the streets of NYC, SureWeCan provides a means of income for the homeless and unemployed in the city. It has been a very successful initiative since 2007.
- Invest in new technologies that are changing the entire collection method such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and as it applies to waste management.
- Smart Cities Solutions — There are a number of waste management companies who work together with smart cities to incorporate ground-breaking technologies to their collection, sorting and recycling.
- The use of bottle deposit stations would be one example. While this innovation has existed for years, if not decades, it’s not widely used in many markets due, in part, to the implementation and material collection cost.
The recycling industry and what gets recycled, how, when hasn’t changed much, especially in the US, since practically the 60s. Governments and the industry can come together to improve the recycling process and technologies:
Consumers do seem to play a bigger part in post-consumption activities until all the processes are updated and made available from higher-up the chain. For instance, identifying locations that do accept plastic bag returns and taking the extra step both increases the impact on the solution and lowers the plastic footprint.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but to highlight what is available and create some inspiration.