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Maggie Kohn headshot

Bio-based Plastics Hit the Big Time, Going Beyond Product Packaging

By Maggie Kohn
Bio-based Plastics

Earlier this month, many of us were duly impressed with Unilever’s pledge to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. The announcement followed Procter & Gamble’s September pledge to increase the post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in its liquid detergent bottles to 50 percent and reach up to 100 percent PCR content in its conditioner bottles. In addition, Nestle’s commitment to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 is another step forward in taking on the global plastics crisis.

These pledges—assuming they are carried through—are all positive steps in addressing the dire plastic waste problem facing the world. But most commitments to date have focused on plastic used in packaging, which is just the tip of the plastic iceberg, so to speak.

A broad bio-based plastics commitment

That’s why it was exciting to hear from Dutch multinational DSM recently that it will introduce bio- and recycled-based alternatives for its entire engineering plastics portfolio by 2030. This is one of the first times a manufacturer of industrial-grade plastics, which have broad applications across industries from automotive to energy, has made such a commitment.

DSM made the announcement at the huge plastics trade conference known as the K-Show happening this week in Germany, saying the move was in part to address the growing consumer and legislative demand for sustainable living practices and more circular products.

As detailed in the announcement, DSM will offer a full portfolio of sustainable alternatives that contain at least 25 percent recycled and/or bio-based content by weight in the final product. The company has leveraged various technologies and approaches to create the new portfolio, such as fermentation, mechanical recycling and mass balance accounting of bio-based and chemically recycled feedstock.

To demonstrate its commitment, DSM announced at the trade show the launch of bio-based grades of two of its products: Arnitel, mainly used to replace rubber in automotive and electronic products, and Stanyl, used in products that require durability at high temperatures such as kitchen spatulas, car transmissions and desktop computers.

Eastman also using innovation to reduce plastic waste

Another company working to transform industrial grade plastic is Tennessee-based specialty materials company Eastman. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to leverage a new innovative process known as carbon renewal technology to reduce plastic waste destined for landfills.

The company says the technology can recycle some of the most complex plastic waste, including non-polyester plastics and mixed plastics, that cannot be recycled with conventional recycling technologies.

Here is how it works: Carbon renewal technology uses plastic waste as an input — or feedstock — and converts it back to simple and versatile molecular components. The process partially oxidizes the plastic and, at a very high efficiency, converts it into the basic building blocks of certain Eastman products, including products that ultimately are used in such diverse sectors as ophthalmics, durables, packaging and textiles.

The company is also using a second advanced circular recycling technology, albeit one that has been around longer than carbon renewal technology: methanolysis. The process uses polyester waste that cannot be recycled by current mechanical methods. Methanolysis then breaks down polyester-based products into their basic building blocks, which can then be used to produce new polyester-based polymers.

According to its website, Eastman is currently executing an engineering feasibility study on the design and construction of a commercial scale methanolysis facility with the goal of full-scale operations within 24 to 36 months.

“Plastics are used in so many important ways. But because some don’t have good end-of-life solutions or are discarded, the world is facing a problem of significant magnitude,” said Mark Costa, Eastman CEO and board chair, adding that Eastman is working to  “contribute in a meaningful way to a circular economy – an economy where we reuse and repurpose our resources, so they retain their value for as long as possible.”

Plastic is not for everyone

Not everyone is inspired by the recent plastic pledges and announcements, however.

The founders of the wildly popular sustainable footwear company Allbirds, Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, recently told Fortune that “Recycling plastic is a decent solution, but based on fundamentally backward logic. We shouldn’t glamorize recycling because it finds new uses for a bad material. Instead, we need to stop using the bad material in the first place.”

Others take a more pragmatic approach, pointing out, for example, that plastic has a lower carbon footprint than many alternative materials when it comes to shipping and distribution.

For companies that are not planning to completely walk away from plastic, the goal must be to ensure that it does not end up in landfills or rivers or oceans, but rather is reused, recycled or composted.

The announcement this week by DSM is a step in the right direction.

Image credit: DSM/Facebook

Maggie Kohn headshot

Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.

Read more stories by Maggie Kohn