With a growing demand to increase the sustainable attributes of consumer products, "innovation" is the name of the game in almost every industry - including plastics. And like 'em or leave 'em, our use of this material only continues to rise.
In fact, the U.S. plastics industry employs 1.1 million workers and provides nearly $379 billion in annual shipments. It is the third largest manufacturing industry in the U.S., according to the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). And the industry continues to modernize and adapt to new applications, an ever-changing metamorphosis to fit the needs of millions of consumers is in play.
Sigh. New technology and developments are fine, but what does it mean for the rest of us? Why should you care?
To find out, Earth911 dug into the industry and learned a thing or two about how consumer demand makes this world go round.
A Trickle-Down Effect
Retailers like Walmart are the starting points in the consumer+demand=change equation. After all, the international retail giant is already making strides in the green arena with the current development of its Sustainability Index underway.
"That’s coming from the customers. Walmart is a leader in corporate sustainability goals, and that’s really made a difference in what materials are used. I think that’s going to continue to happen," said Don Loepp, managing editor of Plastics News.
But who does this apply to exactly? In Walmart's case, what they say (and consequently, the opinions of the people who shop at their stores) is causing a ripple effect among those suppliers and manufacturers whose goods are on store shelves.
"Stores come to suppliers and ask for 100 percent recycled or recyclable products, because that's what their customers want," said Fred Roselli, spokesman for Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). "If consumers are pressing to see greener products, which is what people say they want, we're going to provide that. All of our products are recyclable, and our goal with Coca-Cola Recycling is that all of our products are recycled."
What's New - And Why?
Innovations in plastics are aplenty, and many of them involve technically intensive lingo and terminology that we're probably not qualified to comment on here (polymer nanocomposites, anyone?). But to give it to you short and sweet, here are a few concepts that we're particularly excited to see roll out:
- Greater use of easily recycled materials - Of all the plastics you can recycle, PET offers one of the most widely available recycling options. And rather than develop new types of plastics, some companies are opting to increase the chance their product will be recycled by using materials widely collected, like plastic #1. For example, Sprint recently updated its accessory packaging, which is now made from PET, a plastic that’s easier to recycle than its predecessor, PVC.
- Greater use of bioplastics - While the jury is still out on the benefits of bioplastic materials (stay tuned for a new article next month where we explore this topic in greater depth!), the idea that natural materials are being used to substitute fossil fuels is intriguing. Additionally, innovative products are rolling out on the market this year. Now, consumers may have the opportunity to compost plastic at home, something we hadn't seen before.
- Increased use of post-consumer waste - Sometimes, the easiest plastic to get is the plastic that's already in the form you need. Many companies are opting to find ways to continually improve their use of recycled materials, like Nestle's re-source water bottle project. But ideally, product-to-product life cycles (for example, the bottle-to-bottle paradigm Coca-Cola Recycling is adopting with its new plant) are the wave of the future.
These developments are part of the natural progression of the industry. They're also an answer to what "you" want, in the sense of general demand.
"They wouldn’t be advertising and reaching out to consumers if they weren’t seeing that trend rise," said Roselli. "Consumers want to see what companies are doing because they feel they can make a difference there."
"For example, I may not be able to save the rainforest, but I can recycle a bottle of Coke I just finished. It’s that personal ownership of what they’re doing that anyone can relate to."
Sentiments from the plastics industry echo this option as well. "When I think about plastics processors changing materials, they're flexible," said Loepp. "They can shift to what their customers want. They’re willing to use recycled content, etc. It all depends on cost performance and if that’s what the customer wants."
While updates in plastics to better accommodate changing demands in terms of sustainability and performance may not be widely available as of yet, research on these innovative materials and how to overcome their challenges is heavily underway.
As reported in a 2007 survey by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Packaging Digest, 73 percent of 1,255 respondents stated that their companies were emphasizing sustainable packaging.
A new study by Pike Research anticipates the use of sustainable packaging throughout the world to grow 11 percent by 2014, which would mean that almost a third of all packaging would be environmentally friendly.
The companies that are producing and selling the plastic you use are also investigating sustainability on their home turf. According to Roselli, Coca-Cola Enterprises has a new "Target 100" program for approximately 60 centers in North America "We’re targeting 100 percent of waste production at all of our facilities. Some of our facilties are already up to 99 percent landfill diversion, including products like staples, backing of labels, plastics, etc.," said Roselli.
At its Bellevue, Wash. plant, 99.85 percent of Coca-Cola's waste is diverted from the landfill. "They went from recycling 7 pieces of material to recycling 50," Roselli added.
The point? Corporate transparency and response to consumers' sustainability desires is increasing, but we still need to remember to recycle, especially when it comes to easily reused materials such as plastic.
"Now if these materials end up being recycled, that’s a different story," Loepp added.