Time for a Plastic Revolution?

Circular Thinking Starts With Product Packaging

Jun 20, 2018
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Images of vast islands of garbage in the oceans and recent revelations that much of the world’s recycling isn’t being recycled at all have some experts wondering whether society might be heading for a revolution in plastics and packaging.

Just last week, in fact, McDonald’s said it would begin testing alternatives to plastic straws at some U.S. locations in 2018, responding to concerns from environmentalists. The quick-serve chain, which has already pledged to ban plastic straws in the United Kingdom and Ireland, dispenses millions of plastic straws a day.

The thin plastic straws, which take up to 200 years to biodegrade, have become emblematic of frivolous environmental waste. Several U.S. cities, mostly in California, have banned them along with plastic bags, and now some companies are looking to follow suit.

“This is legit hard-core public policy,” says Kim Robertella Glinka, director of the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

When it comes to the environment, Glinka says, “there is a near-term game, and there is a long-term game. I’ve always been interested in business because of the scale it can bring to problem-solving.”

The plastics that human beings discard — or throw away — remain on the planet in some way. “There is no ‘away’ for things that are thrown away,” she says.

“Literally everything that we are, everything we produce, and everything we have and ever will have is because of the abundance of what the natural world provides,” Glinka says. “We are part of a closed ecological system.”

Recycling is a near-term necessity, she says, but not a solution. “Even if we do everything right, materials can only be recycled a certain number of times and then they cannot be recycled anymore. Recycling is really just a slower rate of putting waste in the ground.”

The solution, she says, is to focus on use and reuse, and to design waste out of the model.

There’s increasing interest in green design, green chemistry and bio-mimicry, however. “The idea is if we are going to create things — packaging and phones and fashion, for example — how do we design it so that it’s just part and parcel of the natural world around us?”

It’s the concept of a circular economy that uses and reuses natural capital as effectively and as efficiently as possible, and finding value throughout the life cycle of a product. Companies are asking: Can seaweed replace our plastic containers? 

“It’s a monumental task to rethink all of the value chains, supply chains, business models and then local and global economies to emulate a regenerative closed system,” Glinka says. “But that’s what’s happening.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been a global thought leader on the topic, funding research and working with global consulting firm McKinsey and Company on global research. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, has launched a global initiative for the circular economy, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center has been a lead advocate, hosting an annual circular economy summit.

Major global brands, including Walmart and Apple are working toward better sustainability. And clothing brand Eileen Fisher has set a goal of reaching 100 percent circularity.

“The challenge with all of this,” Glinka warns, “is that no singular company can do this alone. You can’t be fully circular unless you address the larger system that you’re working within — and that can include government, competing and non-competing organizations, and the very systems and processes that enable and are embedded throughout your supply chain.”

Strides have been made, she says, holding up a pen made of sustainable bamboo and bioplastic, and noting that packing peanuts used by many U.S. companies today are biodegradable. “That’s a start,” she says.

Glinka did a dual-degree master’s program with James Madison University and the University of Malta, learning about sustainability on an island nation severely threatened by degraded natural resources and the climate crisis.

“I think there could be some entry points in moving toward circularity, particularly for some of the big global brands. It could be pretty revolutionary pretty quickly,” she says. “And I think that’s going to have to happen. The technology is already there.” 

In Europe there are grocery stores that allow customers to arrive with refillable jugs — for beverages, dish liquid and other stuff — and to fill their jugs from large containers. Manufacturers are devising ways to package consumer goods in compostable bags or other biodegradable materials, eliminating long-term waste. In the United States, Maryland-based grocer MOM’s Organic Market is setting a similar example with strong commitments to sustainability and reduced packaging. In as early as 2005, MOM’s eliminated plastic bags from all stores.

“Companies just have to be smarter and more innovative,” Glinka says. “And maybe less focused on the flashy, colorful branding associated with packaging. There are other ways to bring your brand to life and differentiate; that’s both a challenge and an opportunity of this move toward circularity.” 

The change is beginning, in part because of the “strongest pivot in the marketplace in recent years — the coming of age of the millennial generation,” Glinka says. “As their purchasing power has increased, there has been this change in the marketplace.”

And it’s expected only to amplify as the younger generation, Gen Z, comes of age. “They have an even bigger list of demands and expectations,” Glinka says.

It’s not only essential, she says. It’s good. 

“Who doesn’t want to live in a world where companies, communities, society and the natural world collectively thrive?” she says. “Who doesn’t want that?”

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