In the last post we covered the current economic and environmental problems caused by the plastics industry, as reported in a World Economic Forum report published this year entitled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics”. Although the report acknowledged that the plastics industry has a negative impact on the environment, it also stated the fact that plastics are essential to our modern industrial civilization. Fortunately, the report paints a bright picture of the future of the plastics industry.
In fact, it claims that we are living in a time of great opportunity for the plastics industry. In this post, we’ll look at some of the brightest opportunities available to entrepreneurs in the industry.
Plastics and the Circular Economy
Most of the externalities and costs posed on society by the plastics industry, the report claims, are related to waste. The ideal endpoint for the industry is the so-called “circular economy”. In the circular economy, the physical materials that make up plastics are never removed from the economy. Those materials that are not recycled, for example, re-enter the economy in the form of biological nutrients that can be used to economic advantage.
The question, as always, is how can this be done in a way that is profitable, or at least cheap enough that producers across the world will be willing to contribute to resource conservation.
The report goes into great depth about the opportunities facing the industry as we move towards a circular economy. I will cover the most promising here, but interested readers should refer to the report itself for more details.
Reusable and Compostable Packaging
One area of opportunity lies in the production of reusable and compostable packaging. Since most packaging materials are only used once, it is logical that the impact of the entire industry could be lessened by designing plastic packaging material for more than one use. In an ideal world, plastic packaging would be reused many times and, ultimately, composted.
Obviously, this would require the development of an entire new sector in the plastics/recycling industry. However, as society demands greater environmental awareness and legislates stricter regulations, those companies who are prepared to do their part will be the ones who ultimately profit.
Leaks are Inevitable
About 32% of plastics end products “leak” from the economy – that is, they do not become feedstocks for additional plastics production. Although the report suggests several strategies for reducing leakage, it acknowledges that it will never be entirely eliminated. It suggests that the impact of plastic leakage can be reduced by developing plastics materials that are more “bio-benign” – materials that do not cause toxicity in living systems and break down quickly once their intended life cycle has ended.
The need for sustainability is causing great change in most industries, and the plastics industry in not exempt. In this two part series, we’ve only scratched the surface of the complexity of problems facing the industry, and only looked at a few solutions. If you’d like to consider future opportunities in more detail, I suggest starting with the following sources: