Sustainable solutions for dealing with technical plastic waste

By | May 27, 2023

This is the first installment of TechRepublic’s Tech Impact video series. The following is an edited transcript of the video.

From the smallest phone in your pocket to the largest container ships crossing our oceans, plastic is ubiquitous, versatile and destructive. Although this synthetic material has become an important part of our daily lives, overuse causes a lot of harm.

Plastic pollutes our oceans, harms wildlife, contaminates our food supply and overcrowds landfills. From 1950 to 2017, the UN Environment Program estimated that over 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste was produced globally. According to the World Economic Forum, over 400 million tonnes are produced each year. UNEP also reports that 85% of plastic waste ends up in landfills each year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that every year 14 million tons enter our oceans.

The blame for this waste cannot be attributed to a diffuse group of individuals, but to a small group of companies. According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, just 20 companies are responsible for over half of the world’s single-use plastic waste.

There are many ways technology companies can cut down on plastic. They are practical steps to create a greener future without changing the entire way we build and sell products. And technology leaders are beginning to see that measuring and reducing their companies’ environmental impact can have benefits such as improving efficiency and their reputation.

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Regulatory bodies keep an eye on the company

Many standards bodies have already set templates for building sustainability targets. After all, the first step to solving the problem is to make a plan.

For example, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool and Global Reporting Initiative Standards detail comprehensive environmental and sustainability standards; these vary widely depending on the industry. GRI takes into account, for example, energy use, the rights of indigenous peoples, biological diversity, waste and much more.

SEE: Sustainability and super apps top Gartner’s top 10 2023 trends list (TechRepublic)

When we focus back on plastics, questions of jurisdiction become complicated. After all, the person who can do a sustainability audit in the cafeteria often does not also visit the factory. Mike Zamis, product manager at ESG platform and consultancy Sphera, advised that companies need to be sure their ESG goals are repeatable, measurable, transparent and auditable.

Dell’s efforts to go “green”

Dell set several internal long-term goals for the environment, social and corporate governance. Zero carbon emissions by 2050 was one of many goals, along with having 100% of packaging and 50% of products made from renewable or recycled materials by 2030. Dell is also working with NextWave, an organization focused on keeping plastic out of waterways. f

Dell global product manager and sustainability strategist Katie Green said materials fished out of the ocean have been broken down by salt and sun and cannot be used. Collecting ocean-bound plastic before it hits the water means more material is available to put back into the economy. That’s why Dell tries to build recyclability into their designs from the beginning.

For example, the lid of Dell’s Latitude 5000 laptop is 21% bioplastic. This plastic comes from tallow oil, a byproduct of the papermaking process; a further 20% is recycled carbon fiber from the aerospace industry. Moving plastics between industries like this extends their lifespan. This in turn contributes to early efforts to create a “circular economy”. In this economic structure, many products and materials are recycled, refurbished or repaired to get the most use out of each.

Round and round circular economy

We have talked about keeping plastic in use longer. What about cutting plastic from products altogether?

Many companies start their journey by reducing plastic in their packaging before moving on to the electronic products themselves.

Green also described a project to eliminate plastic bags from packaged adapters. Originally, Dell’s adapters came in a box with a plastic bag on the power cord and one on the adapter; now Dell uses paper tape around both. It took a lot of trial and error and is still an ongoing project. Some early drafts of this design used rubber or paper integrated into the box. Paper tape was chosen so that the final product could withstand scratches and scuffs. After all, protecting the adapter is the main purpose of the packaging.

To make the change, Dell first approached its existing list of packaging suppliers and asked them what was available. Afterwards, Dell contacted new suppliers, looking for those who were doing innovative work on sustainable packaging specifically.

Green says this process helped get Dell’s suppliers to think outside the box. The company also had to look at their subcontractors to make sure ESG standards were being met. This creates excitement and interest in sustainable packaging across the chain and opens up new business, she said. Overall, the change was not as difficult as the Dell designers expected, with many options.

Reduce waste before it happens

Other efforts focus on cutting some materials out of the entire process. For example, Microsoft’s Aspire Vero laptop uses 30% recycled plastic in its chassis and 50% recycled plastic on its keyboard covers. Microsoft also doesn’t use paint on this laptop line at all; this reduces the chance of it producing volatile organic compounds, which can evaporate into the air as a pollutant. Apple wants to stop using plastic in packaging completely by 2025.

Other materials commonly used in everyday life can also be recycled as consumer products. Samsung recently started using recycled plastic and discarded fishing nets throughout its product lines.

Not all recycled plastic is created equal

Welcome to the reuse section of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Another way to cut down on plastic is to avoid creating new packaging at all. Zamis recommends an attempt to return to the “milkman method”, where customers return empty milk bottles to be refilled. It’s all about making recycling easier. Incentives such as putting a return fee on a bottle or making the products more robust can also help to eliminate the need for new products. Most plastic products are built with an intended lifespan of a year or less, but the chemicals last forever.

“They are a victim of their own success,” Zamis said.

The one-year lifespan can get in the way of attempts to reuse plastic. Part of the challenge, Green points out, is to obtain the same material properties as primary plastics. Post-consumer recycled plastic can vary widely in quality based on its origin.

Customers have certain assumptions about material properties, Green said. After all, you expect a laptop to be durable; it must also meet specific durability standards for production. These limit how much of the plastic mixture can be bio-based or post-consumer.

A reliable similar source is CD disk cases, which are no longer in demand, but were produced in huge quantities. Post-industrial or pre-consumer plastics such as industrial scrap should also be part of the conversation. These can be used across industries.

What will be next?

Despite all the solutions and methods these tech companies have developed to tackle the plastic problem, everyone still faces many challenges in turning sustainability from a dream into a practical plan. Furthermore, the regulations in this area can change quickly.

The UK introduced a plastic tax in 2022, which penalizes any plastic product manufactured in or imported into the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. The US Department of the Interior issued an order in 2022 banning single-use plastics on lands managed by the department by 2032. California has a similar law to reduce single-use plastics over time.

How to get executive buy-in

To sell the idea to the management team of a technology company, phasing out single-use plastics may need to be framed as innovation. Can the first company to figure out how to replace electronics like milk bottles capture a key segment of customers invested in reducing consumption while still having the latest model?

Ultimately, the reduction part of “reduce, reuse, recycle” may prove to be the biggest challenge, but initiatives like these show that it is part of serious conversations taking place at the corporate level today.

Read next: ESG: How Organizations Drive People and Business Outcomes with Leading Digital Work Technology (TechRepublic)

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