Recently, Lux attended the 2021 Rethinking Materials summit, a two-day event focused on innovation in plastics and packaging to curb CO2 emissions and combat waste. Conferencegoers hailed from all parts of the plastics and packaging value chain, representing 42 countries worldwide. The event featured various panels with topics including integrating new materials into existing supply chains and strategies to finance the growth of plastic alternatives. In this blog we outline the major takeaways from the conference.
Companies must take a holistic approach to sustainability
The conference opened with a short presentation from Erin Simon, the head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In her presentation, Erin made two powerful statements – first, that "it is possible to be circular but not sustainable," and second, that "bio-based technologies are not all based in fully sustainable solutions." While companies must prioritize progress over finding the perfect solution, it is important to remember that not every technology (or how it is implemented) is better for the planet's long-term health. Many companies throughout the event noted the importance of LCAs for evaluating the impact of products and their constituent materials throughout their sourcing, manufacturing, use, and end of life. Other interesting concepts were also raised, such as using closed environments (e.g., airports, schools, stadiums) to test and measure sustainability outcomes.
There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution
In almost every panel and presentation, a speaker would reiterate that "there is no one-size-fits-all solution" for making products and packaging more sustainable. At times, the message sounded a bit like a broken record, but it is an important reminder for those who have the mindset that only one solution will win out. In reality, the success of a material or end-of-life scheme will depend on the specific application and region, especially given regional differences in infrastructure, policy, and consumer behavior. One example is the debate on traditional recycling versus organic recycling (biodegradation/composting). While recycling is an "ideal" EOL solution, less than 10% of plastic products are recycled today, with the majority ending up in landfills and leaking out into the environment. The expansion of infrastructure and the adoption of advanced recycling technologies will surely increase recycling rates, but less so for packaging contaminated by food waste or single-use articles that are difficult to capture. Other design and materials solutions will be needed. Looking forward, technology developers must work with different stakeholders to understand and prioritize where their solutions best fit. Investors also need to diversify their portfolios to promote the growth of different alternative classes.
Rethink what bio-based can do
Several technology developers at the conference highlighted the potential for next-generation biomaterials to unlock new performance opportunities. In a panel titled "Enhancing Performance: Designing Sustainable Materials to Outperform the Incumbent Competition," Charles Dimmler, co-founder and CEO of Checkerspot, described how biotechnology could be used to produce molecules that are otherwise challenging or expensive to produce via a petroleum-based route. These molecules open doors to new chemistries, resulting in materials with enhanced performance. Checkerspot, for example, has used its microalgae platform to develop a pourable polyurethane that can replace acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) for lining skis and snowboards. Unlike ABS, the liquid polyurethane is drawn into the wood, creating a bonded interface that will not break even upon a large impact. This invention is only the beginning for Checkerspot, which intends to bring a wide range of materials innovations to market. Still, companies with novel materials must work with downstream partners to understand their needs and how to integrate their more novel solutions into the supply chain. One interesting initiative presented at the conference was the Material Innovation Initiative, which aims to accelerate next-gen materials innovation by connecting technology developers to various industry stakeholders.
The (in)ability to control consumer behavior
Finally, plenty of talk centered around the most important yet diverse stakeholder – the consumer. Surprisingly, there was minimal mention of greenwashing at the conference. Instead, the conversations centered around the need to educate consumers to achieve certain end-of-life outcomes. Consumers often play an important role in determining where products or packaging end up and what circular schemes can/should be adopted. For example, just because a product or packaging is recyclable does not mean that it will end up in a recycling bin. Brands like Kellogg's and Kroger are testing how they present recycling information on their packaging, working with organizations like How2Recycle. Many at the conference acknowledged the importance of consumer behavior for achieving sustainability goals, but there was no good understanding of how possible it is to change/influence this behavior. Audience members asked what other steps brands could be taking to educate consumers and whether this was something technology could help with.
Overall, the conference did a fairly good job at hyping up current alternative material solutions for products and packaging, with a major emphasis on bio-based and compostable technologies. The agenda included topics on materials development and design, supply chain considerations, downstream adoption, and investment and highlighted interesting startups and one-off success stories from larger players like DuPont Biosciences. While there is a lot to be optimistic about, there is still no clear vision for how all of these solutions will work together to achieve a more circular economy. The hypothetical benefits of these technologies are nice to hear about, but there are many external factors, such as regulations, that need to fall into place for their adoption.