As the plastic pollution problem has become mainstream, I’ve been asking myself three questions:
- Is there anything we can do to stem the tide?
- If yes, what?
- If no, at what point is fish no longer a heathy/viable food source?
As investors and general optimists, we will focus most of energy answering the first question.
We look at the rise of plastic pollution across three dimensions:
- People (outreach, education, marketing campaigns to explain the plastic “circle of life”)
- Policy (plastic standards and methods, waste enforcement mechanisms)
- Technology (while much should be done to address policy, our role as investors is to seek new innovations and technologies).
In a perfect world, this technology would enable the best policies to empower the best people.
What’s at stake:
Any solution MUST be global in nature to actually be effective in reducing the rate of new plastic waste in the ocean and beyond. If we are not able to reduce plastic waste, at some future point we will lose a tremendous part of our global food chain: fish, plankton, and the surrounding wildlife. While we can grow fish in farms, the wide-spanning consequences of this loss will not be fully understood until it is too late.
To that end, we believe a viable path to plastic reduction must take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
But wait, isn’t recycling working? Aren’t we stemming the tide by putting our plastic bottles in the blue bin and magically the plastic is converted back into new plastic? Much has been made of recycling over the past 30 years, only to be recently revealed to have accomplished very little. The actual plastic recycling rate? 9.1%.*
*This recycling rate was from 2015, before China and other Asian countries stopped taking our plastics. So we can assume it is even lower today.
So, what can be done? We posit that bio-degradable packaging, containers, films, cartons, and materials need to be considered as a large part of any solution.
Up until very recently, bio-based plastic production required very large sums of water, making them less desirable. As this problem ceases to be, using waste organic materials (lignin from paper pulp, corn husks from animal feed among many others) appears to be a great feedstock.
As direct to consumer trends continue to emerge, the amount of packaging companies employ is ever increasing. Taking the world as it is, we don’t expect this trend to dissipate anytime soon. Rather, we want to see the Amazons, Caspers, and Blue Aprons of the world push to have more biological material in their supply chain.
How to employ:
By using organic waste, ideally these new plastics could be produced closer to the end markets they service. Or at least more regionally. What started as a trend within agriculture is starting to permeate more traditional manufacturing –locality-based supply chains to reduce overall logistics costs (and environmental footprint).
In any viable solution, the physical plastic properties must be similar to (or exceed) those of petroleum-based alternatives. Strength, durability, heat retention or dissipation (as needed) are certainly factors to consider. We have already seen several viable solutions that use the property variations of the organic feedstock to fine tune the degradation schedule – tuning it to breakdown faster or slower based on the end market need.
With these newly constructed bio-based plastics, imagine subway tracks, still littered with unimaginable amounts of plastic, ocean inlets still teeming with plastic junk. This time, however, these plastics breakdown into water, compost(dirt) and oxygen. This allows fish to thrive, humans to live in a cleaner world, and ultimately new business opportunities to emerge.