Sustainable solutions for the management of technological plastic waste
This is the first installment of TechRepublic’s Tech Impact video series. Below 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 essential part of our daily lives, its excessive use causes a lot of harm.
Plastic pollutes our oceans, harms wildlife, contaminates our food supply and overcrowds landfills. Between 1950 and 2017, the United Nations Environment Program estimates that it ended 7 billion tons of plastic waste produced worldwide. According to the World Economic Forum, it is over 400 million tons produced every year. UNEP also reports on this every year 85% of plastic waste ends up in landfills. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that every year 14 million tons enters our oceans.
This waste cannot be blamed on a scattered group of individuals, but on a small group of companies. According to the Index of plastic waste producersjust 20 companies are responsible for more than half of the world’s disposable plastic waste.
There are many ways technology companies can reduce plastic. These are practical steps to create a greener future without changing the way products are manufactured and sold. And technology leaders are beginning to see that measuring and reducing their companies’ environmental impacts can bring benefits such as improved efficiency and reputation.
Regulatory bodies monitor businesses
Several standards bodies have already developed templates for establishing sustainability goals. After all, the first step to solving a problem is making a plan.
For example, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool and the Global Reporting Initiative Standards have detailed, broad environmental and sustainability benchmarks; these vary widely by industry. For example, the GRI considers energy use, indigenous rights, biodiversity, waste and more.
SEE: Sustainability and Super Apps Lead Gartner’s Top 10 Trends for 2023 (TechRepublic)
Returning to plastics, jurisdictional issues sometimes become complicated. After all, the person who might be doing a sustainability audit in the coffee shop often doesn’t visit the factory. Mike Zamis, director of product at ESG platform and consultancy Sphera, advised that companies need to ensure their ESG measures are repeatable, measurable, transparent and auditable.
Dell’s efforts to go “green”.
Dell has set several in-house long-term goals in the areas of environmental protection, society and corporate governance. Eliminating carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 was one of the many goals, and by 2030, 100% of packaging and 50% of its products were made from renewable or recycled materials. Dell is also partnering with NextWave, an organization that works to keep plastic out of waterways. .f
Dell’s global product manager and sustainability strategist, Katie Green, said that materials fished out of the ocean have been broken down by salt and sun and are therefore not usable. Collecting ocean-bound plastic before it enters the water means more material is available to put back into the economy. That’s why Dell tries to build recyclability into the design from the start.
For example, the cover of the Dell Latitude 5000 laptop is 21% bioplastic. This plastic is derived from tall oil, a byproduct of the papermaking process; another 20% is carbon fiber recovered from the aerospace industry. This type of movement of plastics between industries extends their useful life. And this contributes to early efforts to create a “circular economy”. In this economic structure, many products and materials are recycled, refurbished or repaired in order to get the most out of each.
Around and around the circular economy
We talked about continuing to use plastic. How about cutting plastic out of products altogether?
Many companies begin their journey to reduce plastic packaging before moving on to the electronics themselves.
Green also described a project to remove plastic bags from packaged adapters. Originally, Dell’s adapters had a plastic bag on the power cord and one on the adapter; now dell uses paper striping around both. It’s been a lot of trial and error and it’s still a work in progress. Some early drafts of this design used rubber or paper integrated into the box. The paper tape is selected so that the end product is resistant to scratches and wear. After all, protecting the adapter is the main purpose of packaging.
To make the change, Dell first reached out to a list of packaging suppliers and asked them what was available. After that, Dell looked for new suppliers who specifically do innovative work in the field of sustainable packaging.
According to Green, this process helped push Dell’s suppliers to think outside the box. The company also had to audit its sub-suppliers to ensure that ESG standards were met at the end of the line. This creates excitement and interest in sustainable packaging throughout the chain and opens new stores, he said. Overall, the change wasn’t as difficult as Dell’s designers expected, with plenty of options.
Reducing waste before it happens
Other efforts are aimed at cutting certain materials out of the overall process. For example, the body of Microsoft’s Aspire Vero laptop uses 30% recycled plastic and the keyboard cap uses 50% recycled plastic. Also, Microsoft doesn’t use paint at all on this line of laptops; this reduces the chance of producing volatile organic compounds that can evaporate into the air as pollution. Apple aims to completely stop using plastics in packaging by 2025.
Other materials commonly used in everyday life can also be recycled as consumer goods. Samsung has recently started using recycled plastics and discarded fishing nets in its product lines.
Not all recycled plastics are the same
Welcome to the reuse section of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. Another way to reduce plastics is to avoid creating new packaging at all. Zamis suggests trying 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 charging a return fee per bottle or making products more robust can also help eliminate the need for new products. Most plastic products have a design life of no more than a year, but chemicals last forever.
“They are victims of their own success,” Zamis said.
This one-year lifespan can hinder the reuse of plastics. Green points out that part of the challenge is getting the same material properties as the plastic used in the first round. The quality of post-consumer recycled plastics can vary greatly depending on their origin.
Customers have certain assumptions about material properties, Green said. After all, one expects a laptop to last; it must also meet the durability standards set during production. These limit how much of the plastic mix can be bio-based or post-consumer.
One reliably similar source is CD cases, which are no longer in demand, but are produced in huge quantities. Post-industrial or pre-consumer plastics such as industrial waste should also be part of the conversation. They can be used in various industries.
What is the next step?
Despite all the solutions and methods these tech companies have developed to tackle the plastic problem, they still face many challenges when it comes to turning sustainability from a dream into a practical plan. In addition, regulations in this area can change quickly.
The UK introduced a plastic tax in 2022 which will penalize plastic products manufactured in or imported into the UK that do not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. The United States Department of the Interior issued a regulation in 2022 banning the use of single-use plastics in areas managed by the department by 2032. California has a similar law to reduce single-use plastics over time.
How to get a leadership nomination
In order to sell the idea to the executive team of a technology company, phasing out single-use plastics must be framed as an innovation. Can the first company to figure out how to replace electronic products like milk bottles capture a key segment of consumers who invest in reducing their consumption while still owning the latest model?
Ultimately, reducing “reduce, reuse, recycle” may prove to be the biggest challenge, but efforts like this show that it’s part of the serious conversations taking place at the enterprise level today.
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