September 9, 2021
President, Vanguard Charitable
Co-Lead, McKinsey's Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare
Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber Global Energy Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Vice President, Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
As clean energy and sustainable practices become a priority for both the federal government and business sector, the plastics industry remains one to watch. Often thought of as an environmental scourge, plastics can actually play a role in creating sustainable solutions for climate change and environmental protection.
The plastics industry is currently creating innovative, sustainable solutions climate progress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently dedicated one of its EnergyInnovates events to the evolution and future of plastics and sustainability. Here is what four industry experts shared about progress in plastic manufacturing and usage.
Plastics Can Be a Sustainable Solution to Climate Change
Many consumers falsely believe that plastics add to the climate change crisis. However, as Chris Jahn, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council explained, plastic materials enable a lower carbon footprint and provide a clean energy future through their application across a variety of sectors.
Some examples include the auto industry, in which plastics create lighter vehicles that improve fuel efficiency, and consumer goods where plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of food, reducing food waste.
“Our industry is becoming more circular every year,” said Jahn. “With advanced molecular recycling technology, we can break down mixed plastic feedstocks to the basic building blocks, which then can be used to make entirely new plastics or other products. And these materials are ultra-clean quality plastics that can go into very demanding applications.”
Chemistry Is Key to the Versatility of Plastics
Chemical companies, such as Chemours, manufacture chemicals that are essential to the functioning of modern society and building sustainable plastic-based products. To truly understand the footprint of plastics, businesses and governments need to understand the role of chemistry.
“As an example, flora polymers [are] used in everything [for] renewable energy,” said Sheryl Telford, chief sustainability officer and vice president of environment, health, and safety for Chemours. “They enable green hydrogen, 5G battery storage, lithium batteries, and medical devices. The materials, or the applications of these flora polymers, are so incredibly important to society.”
“Our challenge is to ensure that we are producing and using these chemistries across our value chains safely and responsibly,” added Telford.
Businesses Are Trying to Better Understand Consumers to Innovate for Their Needs
Companies such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) have been taking a look at how consumers use their products to create sustainable solutions for them. Brent Heist, P&G's director of research and development for packaging sustainability, discussed how the company has been monitoring consumer habits to create reusable packages that fit the needs of their customers and create a more sustainable world.
“We understand that there has been reusable packaging in the past. Consumers today are not attuned to this,” said Heist. “We're trying to learn what it is that will enable our consumers to want to use reusable packaging; what needs to be true. And we're being very careful about this because we understand that if we turn consumers off from reusable packaging, they might not be willing to try the next iterations of it.”
Advanced Recycling Is the Next Step in Innovation
One of the most exciting innovations revolutionizing plastics is advanced recycling. This is the process of taking and changing the basic chemical structure of a plastic back into basic molecules and using it to make newer, higher-quality material.
“It's really critical because there are some plastics that just cannot be mechanically recycled,” said Mary Draves, chief sustainability officer and vice president of environment, health, and safety for Dow. “It's also critical because we can use advanced recycling to create materials like food-grade and medical-grade products, which have higher requirements [for] quality standards.”
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