Finding a path (Part 4: The final piece)

How do we think about plastics going forward? Good or bad? I think it’s clear plastics and polymers have tremendous potential. But we need to put them to use in the right way. (Image: Vertu Marketing)

I have been exploring and challenging different concepts of sustainability in my writing over the past months. This is the final piece in the series where I try to map out a way forward. It comes down to this: in order to have a chance to figure this out we need to challenge simple truths. Accept that the topic of plastics is too complex for a “normal” consumer to figure out but do not give up on asking questions to try to cultivate a deeper understanding. We need to push the industry to a point where they stop with fancy, misleading words and become transparent.

There is no such thing as one sustainable solution or material. If that is the baseline premise then we would not need the smoke screens and half-truths.

Materials are tools, and sustainability is a way to apply those tools when looking for solutions to our challenges that incur the lowest cost to the eco system.

Here are some (upsetting) examples of what I mean:

  • Did you know that it takes less CO2 to manufacture the plastic bag around the bread than emission you cause by throwing away one slice of the bread inside it? The bag prolongs the life of the bread from days to week(s).
  • Or that the cardboard/plastic hybrid packaging can only be recycled up to 70% while a fully transparent PET bottle will be recycled at 100%, several times, using far less energy?
  • Or that the plastic wrapping on your cucumber makes it last for up to 2 weeks instead of mere days without the packaging. Considering the energy and water gone into growing the cucumber this is a pretty good use of resources.
  • “Natural wood” parquet flooring of “click”-type emits between 4 and 20 times as much formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) as a laminate or plastic flooring? These compounds are known to cause allergies and asthma during long term exposure. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it safe.
  • Not all bio-degradable products are made from bio-based materials. On top of it there is no working systems for recycling bio-based or bio-degradable products today. Finally bio-based products are not necessarily bio-degradable — actually usually they aren’t. Bio-based is used in marketing to mean anything from 5–100% of the feedstock is bio-based. Bio-degradable means it will decompose under certain conditions.
  • Most compostable / bio-degradable products today require so called industrial composting which means high temperatures and high humidity. In the natural environment these take 100s of years to degrade. And compostable is defined in the standards as “degrade to small pieces” not degrade into their basic elements so they could replenish soil or re-enter the eco-system.

Did being a “good, conscious consumer” just get somewhat more complicated? I would think so.

To fix this stuff there is no way around it. Get educated. Learn to ask some good questions. Read through the marketing catch phrases. Find out how things are made. Find out how products flow and how the system actually works. First try to understand why things are done in a certain way. Then try to change them.

Nothing can be meaningfully changed by addressing the symptoms, you need to fundamentally understand what you are trying to do and the system you are trying to impact. Otherwise any substitution will most likely create new, worse problems in the future.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from trying. I mean to encourage you to take it seriously. If you don’t do your homework you will become a part of a different problem.

Think about how your product will be used and what is important to you. Emissions, leaking, recyclability, durability, performance, the angles are endless. And remember that a product’s sustainability depends on how it is put to use. And where you can put it to use again. And again. And again…

Consider the global perspective i.e. the system you are drawing form. Commit yourself to try to do what’s actually right instead of what looks right. Bio-based PE might sound great, but is it with the transportation, land use, competition in the society where it’s grown? Recycled PVC could seem awesome, the manufacturer says its stable and can be reused a lot of times but what goes into making the PVC, what is the overall cost of these materials? Petrochemical based polyolefin’s might not sound great but what if these are made from Nafta that is a byproduct of something we are already extracting — how does that change the equation? Make your decisions based on this assessment instead:

What is the total cost to the eco-system of using different solutions? Now and in the future.

Be the change. Also in your personal life. If you think we should recycle more — make sure to recycle more.

Only 40% of plastics packaging in Sweden end up in the right place so it has a chance to be sorted and recycled. 40%! It’s (literally) criminal.

Make sure your kids don’t lose straws or small plastics pieces anywhere. Use things until they break, fix them use them some more. Buy less stuff. Buy better stuff. Drive less. Use public transport more. Eat less meat. Go into the forest. Play with pine-combs. Don’t buy more toys. Understand that as horrible as the Great ocean patch is, you picking up a disposable paper bag with higher CO2 footprint is a net negative to the eco system — instead use a disposable plastic bag or best of all shop with bags you reuse. Teach your kids that these things matter.

I am worried about our planet, but I don’t think it’s over by a long shot.

I believe individuals can change their behavior. I believe the industry is capable of change. The shift I have seen from the inside the plastics industry in the 10 years since I began my quest for mainstreaming green flame retardants is monumental.

An industry that laughed away sustainability 10 years ago are today investing billions in saving oceans and setting up chemical recycling plants. It was inconceivable.

Are some of this publicity stunts? Sure. Could the industry do more? Probably. But the plastics industry seems to be gearing up to become part of the solution. They have to. Their existence depends on it. That gives me hope. Given how fast plastics have transformed everything we know — these materials barely existed 70 years ago — I see great potential in the coming decades for tweaking what we did not get quite right and fixing what went wrong. Plastics or polymers will be an essential part of reaching the sustainability and resource targets we have to meet. If that happens in parallel with the much-needed behavioral change, we will be circular in no time.

/Amit Paul, CEO Paxymer

[This post was originally published on Medium]