global sustainable development

How big business can navigate the plastic problem

Tom Van Aken, CEO of Avantium, discusses the future of plastics – and how a change in consumer behaviour has led to corporates reducing reliance on fossil fuels

Despite advancements in tech and science, vast clean-up operations and a general mood shift in the public perception of its use, the “plastic problem” is still here. 

According to research by the World Economic Forum, currently half of global plastic production is for single-use, and only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Worldwide, we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic each year, half of which is for single-use items, nearly equivalent to the entire weight of the human population. 

Big brands are under tremendous pressure when it comes to plastic waste and it’s estimated that humans use roughly 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute. In recent years major drinks companies have been stressing that recycling their products is the solution.  

But we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. The fact remains that many types of plastic can’t be properly recycled: they can’t be recycled multiple times, they are downcycled for lower value products or they contain contaminants and can’t be used for food applications. To put it simply, time is running out. In order to quickly and viably address the issue we must look to disruptors to facilitate a complete materials transition. 

Plastic sea change: Businesses are standing up and taking note

Fortunately, the tide is turning and businesses are willing to change. Where there was push-back, scepticism and reluctance beforehand (even as recently as two or three years ago), this has now switched to acceptance, consideration and willingness to engage.  

The conversation has changed from reactive to proactive. Climate change is no longer having to be explained to the big executives in the room, and the same applies to plastics. Anecdotally, brand owners are being forthright in admitting they have a serious issue with plastics. Increasingly, brands and businesses are recognising that what is needed is an entirely new approach; a solution that is free from fossil fuels that pollute the planet. 

There are various catalysts for this shift. The narrative around the climate emergency has become increasingly urgent; we frequently see reports about the impact of climate change, not only in the polar regions but also close to home, most explicitly in the form of natural disasters that will get worse unless we act immediately. 

Companies will tell you that the driver for switching to greener processes is a response to this and their commitment to do better. But is consumer pressure playing a larger role in this change? New generations are shunning everyday plastic-heavy products, taking to social media to protest against brands that use it irresponsibly in their packaging. Most consumers are looking to shop more sustainably and they are willing to pay more for a product that has less impact on the environment. In this instance, the customer is the influencer, convincing brands to reduce their use of carbon in both production and packaging, or risk becoming irrelevant. 

Barrier to circular adoption No.1: “Tainted goods”

But this shift isn’t happening fast enough. There’s a multitude of factors to this, but perception around plastics is one of the reasons driving this. Many consumers see plastic as a “tainted good”. Brands are wary about being associated with the material in any form, sustainable or not, and this could be impacting brand adoption of sustainable alternatives. 

As a result, this is pushing companies that use packaging for consumables, such as beverage companies, to use glass or aluminium as an alternative to single-use plastics. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way forward. The production of these materials means that, in the long-term, they are more harmful to the environment than the single-use alternatives due to its manufacturing being more CO2 intensive than its plastic counterparts. What’s more, the production of glass bottles and aluminium cans is so energy intensive that they are very vulnerable to spikes in energy prices, as we have seen recently.

Barrier to circular adoption No.2: Money

Money is of course another barrier. As a business, the question CEOs are often asking themselves revolves around the return on investment, regardless of whether they’re saving the planet or not. Increasingly, this is becoming less of an issue as consumers – who have to bear the extra financial cost – are willing to pay extra for something more sustainable. Plastic packaging is just a small fraction of the product and the increase in cost of the full product is usually only a couple of percent with sustainable plastics. (Besides, some brands may even consider charging a premium for sustainable bottles). 

This is most likely driving a culture of “fear of missing out” for many brands; put yourself in the position of the brand that doesn’t have a sustainable solution and the impact that might have on your bottom line. The environmentally conscious consumer of today and tomorrow will increasingly vote with their wallet. 

The opportunity for a new plastic

Ultimately, big brands need solutions that are going to meet their supply and demand. This is where plastics derived from materials found above ground come in, such as the biopolymer PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate). PEF is 100% plant-based and fully recyclable and has better properties compared to conventional, fossil-based plastics. Instead of dumping additional fossil carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 or by dumping plastic products in natural systems in the form of plastic waste, PEF is a logical step, as it uses plant-based sugars as a feedstock, where plants are absorbing carbon from the air. 

By looking at alternative resources to create plastic, not only are we reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, but we are creating something fully circular. It could, in the near future, change the way we recycle. Major brands like Carlsberg, Inbev, LVMH and others are embracing this new material, and recently, PEF bottles have been trialled in a range of European countries. 

Scale is a critical component here. Origin Materials acquired a technology license from Avantium, which enables the business to construct a 100 kilotons-per-year facility. This will accelerate the mass production of FDCA (Furandicarboxylic Acid), an essential building block of PEF for use in advanced chemicals and plastics. But perception is key to this. The industry needs to demonstrate sustainable plastics can be cost effective, appealing to consumers and have a positive effect on the environment. 

This won’t be solved overnight. The process of producing these types of sustainable materials at scale can be five or 10 years, sometimes longer. To truly want to make a difference, brand owners need to be urgent, yet patient. 

If businesses are ready to make the switch from fossil feedstock-based materials to a circular solution it can be daunting to know where to start. They should not be in this alone; this movement will only be successful if we work together to share knowledge and best practice. If you want to create a new type of packaging for your products, for example, look at collaborating with a company that already has proven success, green credentials and one that truly understands the science behind it. 

Let’s turn this plastic problem into sustainable plastic opportunities and make sure that your company is part of the solution.