November 14, 2023

Sustainability Success Stories

On a planet with 8 billion people, it’s not very hard to believe that a lot of waste is being generated daily. Humans need a plethora of items to live, work, and enjoy life, and when this need is quantified on a national and international scale, the numbers are astounding. In 2018, the EPA estimated that the United States alone generated 292.4 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste each year. This is a substantial amount of waste considering the fact that the US population made up only 4.3% of the world population at the time. Globally, numbers are even more shocking. The world produces 2.01 billion tons of waste every year, a quantity so immense that it leaves anyone trying to grasp its scale utterly astounded. While consumers decide where products and packaging end up - in landfills, recycling facilities, or compost piles, it ultimately is up to the businesses that manufacture these goods to create them in a way that favors one end-of-life over the other. Historically, this hasn’t been the case. The goal of many businesses at the time was to promote singular usage in order to maximize profit, maintain low cost, and keep the consumer coming back for more. Many products were made (and still are made today) to end up in landfills, often known as a cradle to grave life cycle. It wasn’t until the 1960s, due in large part to the environmentalist movement at the time, that recycling and environmental impact started to influence consumers and what they buy. Flash forward to today, and sustainability is at the forefront of many consumers’ minds when it comes to purchasing products. A study by First Insight showed that consumer demand for sustainable products has increased across all generations, and Gen Z alone boasted the highest percentage - a whopping 90% of those surveyed said they’d purchase a product that was more sustainable. 

In light of these findings, it’s no surprise that businesses have to evolve to meet the wishes of their customers. Businesses have learned that sustainable business practices and circularity should be paramount in their product design and manufacturing processes. Today, more and more corporations are incorporating these ideals into their business models, and many have found success in reduced environmental impact, more consumer demand, and better social equity. Textiles are a major contributor to waste. In 2018, approximately 17 million tons of textiles were produced in the US according to the EPA. In response to the growing number of textiles entering the waste stream, clothing retailer H&M launched their “Let’s Close the Loop” campaign to promote the circularity of their products. Customers can deposit their used garments (of any brand) at drop offs inside of stores and receive a coupon for their donation. These clothes are then used in a multitude of ways depending on their condition. If they are rewearable, they are sold as thrifting items. If clothes are not suitable for garments anymore, they are recycled and used for a variety of items, such as insulation, sustainable clothing collections, and cleaning clothes. Campaigns like Let’s Close the Loop show that a cradle to grave life cycle doesn’t have to exist for every product, and there are alternative ways to reduce environmental impact. Another example of sustainable business practices can be found in the agriculture sector. Food waste and agricultural land use is a major contributor to pollution and waste. A study by the World Wildlife Fund found that almost 1.2 billion tons of food waste are produced yearly. Farming is also extremely demanding for the environment; agricultural practices use 70% of the world’s freshwater supply and almost 1.7 billion acres of land. Many companies like General Mills have invested heavily into creating regenerative agriculture systems that promote local biodiversity, improve water quality and efficiency, and maintain soil quality. In addition to the environmental benefits of these practices, the effect on communities have also been widely positive. The company partakes in improving incomes for local farmers and increasing food security in local communities. Nearly every business imaginable can partake in sustainable practices to lower their environmental impact and create meaningful change for their consumers and the world.

While many businesses focused on selling goods and services have been embracing sustainability and circularity, the need for innovative waste reduction has lent itself to inspiring new companies and groundbreaking research. These entities have been focused on creating solutions to pollution, especially plastic pollution, that involve circularity and production of new resources. PureCycle Technologies is a company created by a scientist at Procter & Gamble and aided by associates at Milliken. Inspired to start the company as a response to the overwhelming amount of plastic produced today, the PureCycle recently made significant advancements in recycling one of the world’s most used plastics, Polypropylene (PP, #5 plastic). Polypropylene is a very durable plastic that is utilized in a variety of materials, from car bumpers to yogurt tubs. Many issues exist with the material however - it traps odors very well, it can only be recycled into dark colored materials, and it typically can’t be recycled into plastic of higher quality (upcycled). PureCycle uses a solvent-based, energy efficient purification process to convert large quantities of used Polypropylene into durable, new Polypropylene resin. The process can also select for the quality of Polypropylene produced, which is essential for deciding which parts become high quality car bumpers or low quality yogurt tubs. Once the material has been completely recycled, it can then be sold to companies for a profit. Companies like PureCycle are one example of the many innovations that the pollution problem breeds, and their technology could help reduce plastic pollution and promote a greener world.

Universities have also been leading the way in waste reduction strategies. A research team led by a professor at MIT has learned of a new way to recycle plastics that can produce energy or other plastics on command. This solution tries to address the confusing side effects brought about from chemically recycling materials. Chemically recycling plastics is a very tricky process - it often creates a mix of random materials due to the unpredictability of the chemical reactions used. This new process takes the randomness out of the equation; by using a cobalt based catalyst, scientists are able to intentionally select where to break apart the plastic molecule to produce known, calculated products. These products include propane, a fuel that can be used in grills, cars, and power plants, or other plastic materials. This process could prove revolutionary to the plastic problem by increasing the circularity of plastics and serving as a source for natural gas, a less environmentally harmful fuel when compared to coal and oil. It is the responsibility of businesses to promote a more sustainable world through their products and practices, and it is up to the consumer to participate in activities that support it. Understanding between both parties is essential to combating the global waste issue. Fortunately, that understanding is known and happening right now -  incredible progress has been made in reducing waste created from businesses using recycling techniques and technology.