The impact that plastic waste has on our environment is making customers question the traditional ‘take-make-dispose’ consumption model. Over the last decade, businesses have reacted to public scrutiny by introducing more sustainable processes, especially as end users change their purchasing habits and move away from single-use plastics.
All of the waste that isn’t recycled or reused accumulates, creating literal landscapes of trash—take the Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles, the largest landfill in the United States, towering 500 feet (150 meters) high and covering 700 acres (2.8 km2). Although it no longer accepts waste, it provides a visual representation of the scale of the problem.
A recent scientific study reported that a whopping 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since 1950. Of this, 6.3 billion metric tons have been discarded and only 9% of that has been recycled. While most of this waste is sent to landfill, much of it is thrown away as litter, ultimately making its way into our oceans.
The Great Pacific garbage patch—which is thought to cover an area twice the size of Texas—is just one of the world’s plastic islands. Created by the accumulation of debris formed by the ocean’s network of currents, these floating formations are a snapshot of the estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, found at sea. That’s 1.15 to 2.40 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year from rivers alone, with total estimates as high as 8 million tons from all other sources.
Plastic consumption has increased twentyfold in recent decades. While small initiatives are slowly being unrolled, a largescale cultural shift is required for real change. Multinational corporations, national and regional governments must take the lead—and solutions must be adopted and embraced by the general public.
Initiatives to encourage movement away from single-use products include a recent innovation from Corona, which redesigned its beer cans to stack together. This eliminates the need for plastic six-pack ring holders and the company has made the design open source to allow other businesses, even rivals, to copy the idea.
Furthermore, many grocery stores are encouraging customers to bring in their own reusable containers and buying in bulk, including major retailers such as Waitrose in the UK.
So while it appears that customers’ habits are shifting in response to the rising concerns about sustainability and waste, it’s necessary that steps are taken to reduce plastic waste earlier in the value chain.
Certain industries have started to use waste as the raw material for their own processes. In doing so, they’re creating a new circular economy where products are never discarded. Instead, businesses will ensure that their products be reused, recycled or composted. This not only benefits the environment, but companies have financial incentives to invest in the development of sustainable practices by having access to cheap raw materials.
Biofuels are a great example of this circular economy, where sustainable feedstocks (biomass or fats and oils) can be harvested either as waste or from naturally occurring sources and processes to form usable ethanol or diesels. Either blended with existing fossil fuels, or sold as a true renewable fuel, both products have a lower carbon footprint and make use of materials which would have otherwise been discarded.
Thermoplastics offer a solution to single-use waste—when heated, the molecules in these plastics don’t chemically bond with each other. This means that while the plastic is durable enough for its intended use, it can then melted down and reused. Thermoplastics are therefore ideal for reapplication by design and offer a workable solution to eliminating single-use products. In the aerospace space, for instance, the use of thermoplastics is on the rise as they are both durable and light. If we continue to see innovation across industries, this could become an effective way to reduce the waste of other materials and create a reverse supply chain for plastics that can be repurposed.
The battle against the rising amount of plastic waste is now being fought at all stages throughout the value chain, but businesses will be ultimately rewarded for innovation as customers become more environmentally-conscious and change their purchasing habits. The movement away from single-use plastics is also a significant first step towards a circular economy and more sustainable world.
To react to this, supply chains must become more strategic, research and innovation focused on sustainable products and converting recycled raw materials, and strategic marketing increasingly concerned with high cost products (due to more complex manufacturing processes) while selling the positive impact and sustainability side of goods. As a result, we’ve noticed an growing demand for experienced supply chain professionals across a multitude of functions to accommodate for these fast-paced changes.
If you’re looking for you next challenge in the supply chain, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss available vacancies.