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 traversing our oceans, plastic is ubiquitous, versatile and destructive. While this synthetic material has become an essential part of our daily lives, its overuse is causing a lot of harm.
Plastic pollutes our oceans, harms wildlife, contaminates our food supply and overcrowds landfills. From 1950 to 2017, the United Nations Environmental Programme estimated that over 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste was produced globally. According to the World Economic Forum, over 400 million tonnes is produced every year. The UNEP also reports that each year 85% of plastic waste ends up in landfills. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that each year 14 million tons enters our oceans.
The blame for this waste cannot be attributed to a diffuse group of individuals but to a small group of corporations. According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, only 20 companies are responsible for over half of the world’s disposable plastic waste.
There are plenty of ways tech companies can cut down on plastic. They’re practical steps to making a greener future without trading away the entire way we build and sell products. And tech leaders are starting to see that measuring and reducing their companies’ environmental impact can have benefits such as improving efficiency and their reputation.
Regulatory bodies keep an eye on enterprise
Many standards’ bodies have already set templates for building sustainability goals. After all, the first step to solving the problem is to make a plan.
For example, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool and the Global Reporting Initiative Standards have detailed wide-ranging environmental and sustainability benchmarks; these vary widely depending on industry. GRI, for example, takes into account energy use, the rights of indigenous people, biodiversity, waste and much more.
SEE: Sustainability and superapps top Gartner’s Top 10 2023 Trends List (TechRepublic)
Focusing back on plastics, sometimes matters of jurisdiction get complicated. After all, the person who may do a sustainability audit on the cafeteria is often not also visiting the factory. Mike Zamis, chief product officer at ESG platform and consultancy Sphera, advised that companies need to be sure their ESG measures are repeatable, measurable, transparent and auditable.
Dell’s efforts to go ‘green’
Dell set itself several in-house long-term goals regarding Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance. Zero carbon emissions by 2050 was one of many goals, along with having 100% of its packaging and 50% of its 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 can’t be used. Collecting ocean-bound plastic before it hits the water means more material is available to put back into the economy. Therefore, Dell tries to bake recyclability into their designs from the beginning.
For instance, the lid of Dell’s Latitude 5000 laptop is 21% bio-plastic. This plastic comes from tall oil, a byproduct from the paper-making process; another 20% is reclaimed carbon fiber from the aerospace industry. Moving plastics around between industries like this lengthens their useful lives. That in turn 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 as much use out of each as possible.
Around and around the circular economy
We’ve talked about keeping plastic in use longer. How about cutting plastic from products entirely?
Many companies start out their journey into reducing plastic in their packaging before moving on to the electronics products themselves.
Green also detailed a project to eliminate plastic bags from packaged adapters. Originally, Dell’s adapters would come boxed with one plastic bag on the power cord and one on the adapter; now Dell uses paper banding around both. It took a lot of trial-and-error, and it is still an ongoing project. Some early drafts of this design used rubber or paper integrated into the box. Paper banding was chosen so the final product could withstand scratches and scuffing. After all, protecting the adapter is the main purpose of the packaging.
In order to make the change, Dell first approached its existing list of packaging suppliers and asked them what was available. Afterward, Dell reached out to new suppliers, looking for those doing innovative work in sustainable packaging specifically.
Green says this process helped to drive Dell’s suppliers to think outside the box. The company needed to look at their sub-suppliers, too, to be sure ESG standards were met down the line. This drives 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 a lot of options.
Reducing 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 the chassis and 50% recycled plastic on the keyboard caps. Also, Microsoft doesn’t use any paint on this laptop line at all; this reduces the chance for it to produce volatile organic compounds, which can vaporize into the air as pollution. Apple aspires to stop using plastics in packaging completely by 2025.
Other materials commonly used for everyday life can be recycled as consumer products, too. Samsung recently started using recycled plastics and discarded fishing nets throughout its product lines.
Not all recycled plastic is created equal
Welcome to the reuse part of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Another way to cut down on plastics is to not have to make new packaging at all. Zamis recommends an attempt to return to the “milkman method,” where customers return empty milk bottles to be filled again. It’s all about making recycling easier. Incentives like putting a return fee on a bottle or making the products more robust could help eliminate the need for new products, too. Most plastic products are built with an intended life of one year or less, but the chemicals last forever.
“They’re a victim of their own success,” Zamis said.
That one-year lifespan can get in the way of attempts to reuse plastic. Part of the challenge, Green points out, is getting the same material properties as first-run plastic. Post-consumer recycled plastic can vary in quality a lot based on its origin.
Customers have certain assumptions about material properties, Green said. One does expect a laptop to be durable, after all; it also needs to meet specific durability standards for manufacturing. These limit how much of the plastic mix can be bio-based or post-consumer.
One reliably similar source is CD disk cases, which are no longer in demand but were produced in huge amounts. Post-industrial or pre-consumer plastic like industrial scrap should also be part of the conversation. These can be used across industries.
Despite all the solutions and methods these tech companies have developed to tackle the plastics problem, all still face a lot of challenges in turning sustainability from a dream into a practical plan. Plus, regulations in this area can change rapidly.
The U.K. put a Plastic Tax in effect in 2022, which penalizes any plastic product manufactured in or imported into the U.K. that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. The U.S. Department of the Interior issued an order in 2022 banning single-use plastics on Department-managed lands 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 executive team of a technology company, phasing out single-used plastics may need to be framed as innovation. Can the first company that figures out how to swap out electronics like milk bottles grab a key segment of customers invested in reducing their consumption while still having the newest model?
Ultimately, the reduce part of “reduce, reuse, recycle” may prove to be the greatest challenge, but efforts like these show it’s part of serious conversations happening at the enterprise level today.