Think Beyond Plastic: Addressing Drivers of Marine Plastics Pollution by Harnessing Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Market Power

DRussoESm (2)On 27 April, 2015, Daniela Russo, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Think Beyond Plastic, gave an overview of the most recent developments in the rapidly expanding field of material, manufacturing and design innovation across a range of sectors with an emphasis on the substantial contribution of alternatives to help address marine plastics from a range of pollution sources: food packaging and services, medical equipment, personal care products, construction, transportation and agriculture. Many of these disruptive innovations have great potential to transform markets by reducing the flow of plastic waste into the ocean, while enabling new businesses for the green and blue economy models, creating jobs and investment opportunities.  The presentation took place at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) office in Washington D.C., and was followed by a stimulating discussion that included US government officials, and representatives from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Plastics production and consumption continues to increase at an exponential rate driven by the growth in consumption rates observed in the rapidly urbanizing countries of Asia and Central Europe. Global plastic production rose to 299 million tonnes in 2013, representing a 3.9% increase over 2012 levels. Around 4 per cent of world oil and gas production is used as feedstock for plastics and an additional 3-4% is used for energy during manufacturing. A major portion of plastics produced each year is used to make disposable packaging or other short-lived products that are discarded soon after use. Existing waste management strategies such as energy recovery and recycling are not adequately coping with increasing levels of plastic production. As a result of this unabated expansion of plastics, marine and freshwater habitats from the equatorial to the polar regions, are contaminated by plastic debris.

Daniella Russo underlined the significant financial and reputational risks of unchecked plastics consumption imposed on many businesses in the future, with the increased sensitization of the public about  the pervasive nature of plastic products, the toxic elements often added as plasticizers to confer appropriate properties to make them fit for purpose, their challenging end-of-life disposal, and the dependence of traditional plastics industries on oil and gas derivatives, Acknowledging the challenge of finding alternatives that offer comparable price, convenience and performance, she emphasized that innovations in materials, manufacturing, design and recycling offer tremendous business opportunities that Think Beyond Plastic is capitalizing on.

The social venture’s approach is to cut across various steps in the production supply chain, from substituting plastic with other materials manufactured from ubiquitous source inputs (such as bagasse and nanocrystalline cellulose), to innovating the design, manufacturing (converting methane to PHB etc.) and recycling of products that require the services traditionally provided by plastic. One of the key aspects of this approach lies in the Innovation Design Criteria matrix, whereby an innovation can only be considered as an alternative to plastic if it achieves both plastic price and performance, and it must be both scalable and sustainably sourced.

Furthermore, Russo explained the instrumental role Think Beyond Plastic plays in creating the right ecosystem for innovation to thrive by removing the main barriers to entrepreneurship, including access to expensive materials and innovation labs. Access to materials and equipment has to be supplemented by an enabling policy, regulatory and financial environment  to support entrepreneurs (e.g., setting of hazardous substance level benchmarks by government, low interest loans by private and development banks, government revolving fund schemes to support innovation, various financial credits etc.) to unlock the potential for lasting solutions to the plastic issue.

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Think Beyond Plastics is a social profit venture that aims to eradicate plastics marine pollution by harnessing the forces of innovation and entrepreneurship in materials, manufacturing, design and recycling. More information about the venture is available here.