Could plastic be an unlikely warrior in the fight against climate change? At the Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation, scientists have recently discovered ways to take carbon dioxide, a leading contributor to climate change, and transform it into the building blocks of substances that make plastic products. The ability to remove carbon dioxide and recreate it into a reused consumer product, like a plastic package that protects leafy greens, has the potential to revolutionize climate action.
Groundbreaking innovations, like carbon dioxide utilization, take time. They require a healthy dose of experimentation, failure, daring and above all — faith in science. And as the world seeks to overcome four overlapping crises – Covid-19, the economy, climate change and inequality — a long-term investment in new technologies, that will also deliver short-term returns along the innovation journey, will be critical to reimagining impact.
We’ve seen faith and courage in science play out before in the quest to find better solutions for our planet: renewable energy. At first, many were dubious that renewables were a viable substitute for coal in the United States’ energy mix. Fast forward to today, renewable energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sources in the country, and in 2019, solar, wind and other renewable sources surpassed coal in the US for the first time in over 130 years.
Plastics, like energy, are now intertwined with modern human living. With more than a decade in the plastics packaging industry, I have witnessed firsthand the undeniable benefits that plastics bring society — and the adverse impact plastic waste has had on our ocean and greater environment. We in the packaging industry know we have to do better. It is my hope that, as we collectively look toward reimagining impact after Covid-19, we also recognize that this crisis represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build back a better, more sustainable future.
Recent research makes clear that there is no single solution to plastic waste or for any other material that humans discard after use. Managing waste is complex. And finding a path forward – where people can continue to benefit from essential plastic products like PPE while making sure they don’t impact our climate – will be anything but linear.
But what if products and materials like plastic waste, that often end up as trash, instead found a continuous second or even third life as recyclables while also reducing emissions? Scientists, practitioners and young innovators, working side-by-side through collaborations like the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, envision a world where every material is threaded into a circular cycle of use and reuse. Research from McKinsey & Company and C40 Cities points to waste management as one of four key pillars that cities can take action on to reduce nearly all of their emissions by 2030. As plastic waste and climate change collide, finding new use for plastics and other materials is vital to a low-carbon future.
A circular economy — where plastic waste and other goods are diverted from landfills and put back to use in the market — is critical to creating products that support human life and a sustainable planet. Unilever has recently shared findings that humans have the potential to eliminate 45% of all emissions by 2050 by building circular economies for cement, aluminum, steel, plastics, and food. Circular supply chains also represent up to $120 billion a year in economic value — an important and compelling figure in a world recovering from Covid-19.
Other materials like metals and paper have a problematic impact on carbon emissions. This can be reduced by working across industries to invest in collaborative circular solutions. Bio-technology companies, like Finland’s UPM, are working to create alternative, renewable sources for plastic through biofuels. At UPM, a team of engineers are reusing leftover residue from the paper industry’s production to create bio-feedstocks as green ingredients for plastics. What’s more, the reused residue that UPM uses comes from sustainably managed forests. Biofuels are a win-win for people and planet.
Plastic packaging continues to play a meaningful role in ensuring that people are sustained with the food and nutrition they need to live healthy lives. And it is also key to ending food waste, which “feeds climate change,” according to a UN Environment report launched last month. Food waste contributes 8% of our planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN, methane gas from waste and landfills is 86 times more potent than CO2 to the atmosphere. Research from the EPA also found that food waste makes up 28% of municipal solid waste in these landfills. Plastics companies, however, are critical partners to mitigating the food waste issue, where advanced packaging designs are capable of salvaging 280,000 tons of food waste, worth an economic value of $882 million. And collaborative businesses across the food and packaging industry, like Loop and Imperfect Foods, are poised to tackle food waste and climate change in a two-fold solution: upcycling groceries delivered with sustainable packaging.
We can fix this; with faith and courage in new technologies, governments, business, academia and NGOs are primed to solve for interconnected challenges, like climate change. New innovations in plastic sourcing from advanced recycling technologies, as well as greater investments in circular economy business models, have turned plastic into a viable and powerful agent for reducing emissions. Join Dow and other industry leaders in renewing corporate commitments to the Paris Agreement and a zero-carbon future to get us back on track for a sustainable planet. Our families, our communities depend on us.
By Mike Witt, Dow Corporate Director, Carbon, Circularity and Safer Materials