Header Title



business models, strategies and technologies

Value-building capabilities help plastic solutions get serious

Plastic is nasty stuff – but how do we turn tackling it into good business?

Tipping point arrived?

Anno 2019, the tipping-point awareness about the problems caused by plastics suddenly seemed to have been reached. The so-called Overton Window – the range of publicly acceptable discourse – had shifted. The plastics discussion seems to have finally gone mainstream – and inevitably been pillaged and trivialised to the nth degree.

The upside is that there’s now at least a vague assumption/expectation that most reputable companies, organisations and households are doing something to reduce plastic use. But It’s much easier to adopt some vague awareness that a problem exists than to know exactly what to do about it, and to make those efforts effective.

From scratching the surface

In October 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that more than 250 big-name organisations had signed up to its pledge to eliminate single-use non-recycled plastics by 2025. Laudable, of course, but really only a pinprick non-solution when current figures tell us that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic than fish in our oceans. And that there are now deepsea “hotspots” in the Mediterranean in which there are almost 2 million pieces of microplastic debris per square metre. Limiting a tiny part of the future inflow doesn’t get rid of these existing monuments to our wanton global self-destruction.

However, the essence of this Ellen MacArthur Foundation measure is bigger – to initiate a “race to the top in the creation of a circular economy for plastic”. Organisations that wish to stand out – to set expectations for change looking forward, rather than simply looking back at clean-ups – are going to have to move beyond me-too tokenism. Naturally, there’s no one right answer. Effective solutions to global plastic problems will require dovetailing countless different approaches and technologies, but it’s vital that each of them is exceptionally capable and committed to doing something substantial.

 Contrition and compliance to commercial opportunity

This post was sparked off by chancing across a company I later discovered is actually Danish. According to one source, there are as much as 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear – known as “ghost gear” – discarded into our oceans every year. One study concluded that up to 70% (by weight) of macroplastics found floating on the ocean surface stems from commercial fishing activities.

Plastix, based in Denmark, transforms these surprisingly large amounts of these kinds of discarded nets and other plastic waste into recycled raw materials with solid commercial value, which can then be used in producing new HDPE and PP plastics. Plastix specialist technologies can apparently recycle plastics from nets, trawls and other maritime waste without downgrading the quality – a key criterion for commercial success.

What’s also notable is that the company’s corporate video communicates a strong sense of urgency and determination, alongside an explicit commitment to six of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals, and does so as an integral part of the company’s business model and strategy. This latter is noteworthy – in the Plastix setup compliance with sustainability goals is apparently not just a nice-to-have add-on, as in much other corporate communication.

Straight talking from Plastix

The use of plastics isn’t going to go away overnight, but as a raw material for next-loop use, this apparently reduces the carbon dioxide impact by 95%. This – along with the Plastix certification measures – seems to make the company’s approach a good shot at a commercially viable, scalable chunk of a circular economy for plastic (waste).

There are, of course, other companies active in this field. One of the best-known is a startup named Bureo — set up by three entrepreneurial American surfers — that collaborates with fishermen in Chile to keep hundreds of tons of discarded nets out of the ocean each year. Recovered nets are turned into polyester and nylon pellets as a 100% recycled material named NetPlus®. This is then sold to companies as a sustainable alternative to first-use plastics. NetPlus® is now used (and – importantly – very visibly profiled) in products that include Patagonia hat brims, Humanscale office chairs and Trek bike parts.

Furthermore, Bureo has partnered with the redoubtably principled Patagonia to introduce NetPlus® into the Patagonia supply chain, with a combined mission of re-using waste and reducing the use of new plastics. They have also signed up an agreement with Chile’s National Commercial Fishing Industry Association, and are apparently on track to recycle 100%  of the country’s wild-caught net waste.

“Green storytelling” and tokenism burdens

There seems to be much greater impact potential – and more future – in approaches like Plastix and Bureo, as a nitty-gritty business model, than in the glitzy efforts of companies like Adidas and its Parley for the Oceans environmental initiative. Making Manchester United’s 2018/19 kit from ocean plastic, for example, is hardly likely to tip the ecological balance. This kind of journo-feeding action tends to grab headlines without actually removing much plastic, and is usually peripheral to any business model, rather than a core rethink.

Such mega-change is also a bit of an uphill battle when faced by a “green storytelling” industry consisting of corporate PR, journo output targets and enthusiastic green disciples. Together, these often end up ensuring that a constant stream of photo-friendly but volume-light “cosmetic patch” initiatives and products get much more media runtime than any serious rethink of the fundamentals. That said, the Parley gang do seem to have big plans and are apparently ready to scale up with Parley Ocean Plastic as a material for widespread commercial use.

Products don’t cut it

According to the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever made, about one million tons of plastic gets churned out every single day worldwide, and more than 90% of that will never get anywhere near a recycling scheme. So individual product ranges made of recycled plastic – however PR-blitzed or successful – aren’t ever going to make much real difference in the overall flood of plastic entering oceans, landfills, landscapes and even our own bodies.

There are also lots of seemingly promising experimental technologies that claim to be able to (for example) convert polypropylene waste into oils, convert plastic bags into high-value carbon nanotubes, or turn ocean plastics into diesel fuels using techniques such as catalysed pyrolysis and cross-alkane metathesis. Meanwhile, the National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have put together the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge to source new ideas about ways to deal with plastic waste. But, again, playing the technology card won’t help much unless such options can be scaled up dramatically.

Platforms and business-capability basics

There are now many companies operating in market niches that focus on developing scalable platforms and on transforming the colossal volumes of plastic that already exist into useful and usable raw materials that are commercially as well as functionally attractive.

One high-profile example is US company Unifi, which describes itself as a leading global provider of textile solutions. Unifi developed and now markets REPREVE – ostensibly the world’s leading recycled fibre –manufactured from used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The thing to notice is that this is (according to experts …) a functionally and commercially attractive fibre that embeds key properties that include wicking, adaptive warming and cooling, water repellency, etc. right at the fibre level. Major brands then use these fibres to make high-quality athletic wear and fashion garments that do their job better than conventional/traditional types of fibres and therefore pave the way to a commercially significant price premium. By focusing on producing commercially attractive fibre that can be used for countless different uses and in countless different products, the REPREVE model builds scalable capabilities and practical, bankable value.

Fiber made from recycled
plastic bottles … to do good.

Other apparently similar operations offer different mixes of focus on recycled input and commercially value output. One such is Polygenta Technologies in India, which employs patented ReNEW™ technology (neither mechanical nor chemical) to process daily totals of two million plastic bottles by depolymerising post-consumer PET back into its pure-ester feedstock constituents. This means PET can be (re)-manufactured sustainably, as well as at lower cost. The company uses these inputs to manufacture 100% recycled 50–300 denier polyester filament yarns for a wide range of uses.

Transitioning to the value creation narrative

One key point about the Unifi operation – and the way it communicates about what the company does – lies in the communication shift from just focusing on the source, as the virtue point, to a narrative about the fibre product and the practical capability benefits and the added value it provides. This involves moving from the realm of “ethical obligation” and remedial patching to the more pragmatic arena of “commercial advantage” – a much more powerful driver in business decision-making.

Companies like Unifil and Polygenta have moved beyond the inherently moralising narrative about waste, pollution and recycling of the input to a nitty-gritty discussion of performance and commercial usefulness of the output. Scalability, consistency and quality are crucial for supplying customers like global sports brand Adidas, which has promised to fully transition to recycled thread by 2024. This is surely a stronger long-term business model than a plethora of individual single-context, single-use niche solutions?

Sting in the tail?

It occurs to me, however, that this kind of recycling solution is perhaps forgetting to take its own medicine, and simply pushing the issue further back along the timeline – unresolved. The thought came from investigating the innovative TT-1 fabric from Boundary Supply – a proprietary combination of merino wool, T-400 Lycra (made of recycled PET bottles) and Nylon 6,6 to provide an allegedly remarkable blend of technical fibres. It’s best described here (scroll down!) in their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign.

The apparently amazing TT-1 (yes, I’ve ordered a pair …) ticks all the right boxes about responsible sourcing and production (with BLUESIGN certification, etc.), resilience, lifetime guarantee and less washing. But what happens at the inevitable, if delayed, end of this new product’s life? T-400 Lycra made of recycled plastic bottles sounds great, but it is now a complex combination of polymers that probably won’t be easy to unravel at the point of disposal some indeterminate time in the future. Regardless of their honourable origins, how do you recover, recycle or responsibly dispose of such complex, blended materials? Tackling the problem is simply postponed, which means the ends of the circle don’t meet. So there seems to be a hole in the (otherwise hugely attractive) business model here …

External info