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Should You Worry About Path Dependence In Sustainable Materials?

Michael Holman, Ph.D., VP & Group Director for Manufacturing and Materials & Kristin Marshall, Analyst
July 12, 2021

Companies like Conceptos Plásticos in Colombia and Gjenge Makers in Kenya have a clever solution for the problem of plastic waste pollution in the developing world: Convert discarded plastics into building materials like bricks and tiles. This elegant approach kills several birds with one stone, addressing the ills of plastic waste and displacing other energy-intensive materials, all while providing local economic opportunities in areas that often sorely need them. As such, they represent an ideal solution that organizations that care about sustainable materials should strive to emulate.

Making Sense of Sustainability

Or do they? These solutions aren't circular, and indeed, the sand and other materials that get mixed into the plastic to create the bricks and tiles all but ensure that they can't be recycled again, potentially creating an even more egregious plastic waste problem down the road, to say nothing of worries about shedding of microplastics. What's more, they could help to entrench a system that depends on the production and disposal of massive amounts of plastics, creating incentives to avoid banning these single-use plastics or competing with more sustainable solutions that might emerge for plastic waste in the future, such as chemical recycling.

That's not to denigrate the work of the entrepreneurs behind these ideas – their approach is clearly a big improvement over the status quo. But the drawbacks do raise concerns about path dependency: Does implementing a better but imperfect solution now risk blocking the adoption of more impactful solutions down the road? There are many such cases – a loop-the-loop approach of using oil from waste pyrolysis for fuels might be better for now but could take us down a path that turns into a dead-end once electrification cuts down fuel demand. Current investments in battery fast-charging infrastructure could crowd out funds for battery-swapping schemes that might make more sense in the future (or vice-versa). How should these concerns factor into your sustainability decision-making?

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Overall, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good – in general, it makes sense to pursue a solution that offers improvements today, without losing too much sleep over how it might compare to a theoretical future ideal. The scale of changes needed to meet global challenges and the often inherently slow diffusion of more sustainable solutions mean that there's likely to be plenty of bad old stuff yet to be displaced if and when someone invents an even better mousetrap. Still, it's worthwhile for all stakeholders to consider issues of path dependency:

  • Regulators should design policies with flexibility in mind, not to promote specific solutions. Incentives that allow next-generation innovations to capitalize on them as well, such as tax or pricing schemes, are wiser than subsidies targeted at favored technologies – though consistency of rules across regions and over time is still important.

  • Materials developers should adopt a portfolio mindset and not be afraid to disrupt themselves before outsiders do. New technologies will continue to emerge, and making sure to have a steady stream of improved solutions in the pipeline rather than resting on their laurels with one big bet will help keep companies ahead of the curve.

  • Product companies should take a system transition view, balancing diverse metrics. Consumer products, food, automotive, construction, and other players looking to improve the sustainability of their offerings should not just fixate on one measure, whether it's recycled content, emission reduction, water usage, or what have you. Instead, take a considered approach to weighing different sources of impact that allows the organization to critically evaluate new options.

  • Entrepreneurs and investors should build collaborative ecosystems to effectively explore options. Of course, any company should understand the impact and usage of its product well, and look to continue improving it, but participating in hackathons, competitions, incubators, consortia, and so on can help ensure it's seeing all the angles. Challenges like NextGen Cup or Beyond the Bag are good venues for this type of exploration as well.

Of course, all of this discussion assumes that solutions are actually better overall – not just better on one metric but worse on others, or otherwise suffering from serious unintended consequences. Companies do still need to assess new solutions holistically to make sure the improvement is a net positive. Even when that's done, though, progress toward a more sustainable economy isn't always going to be linear or straightforward. By being willing to always consider new options and avoid getting stuck on path dependency, companies can help to build a better system, brick by (plastic) brick.

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