Across the globe, efforts are being made to reduce waste and improve sustainability across supply chains. Through science-led research and development, manufacturing must continually strive to develop products that have a reduced impact on the environment once they have been used. Through collaboration with organizations responsible for waste management infrastructure, manufacturers can help ensure materials are recaptured from products to be used again. Doing so advances a circular economy in which waste is minimized and the entire lifecycle of products is considered.
Ideally, everything manufactured would be reused or repurposed to eliminate waste. This isn’t always possible, such as in the case of food and drink packaging, in which case there are three alternatives to landfill:
Around the world, the biggest push in many markets is to recycle waste, i.e. to extract materials that, once treated, can form the basis of new products.
Whether or not something can be recycled comes down to more than just its scientific properties. Decision makers and manufacturers need to work together to ensure that items entering waste management processes have the right qualities, while ongoing efforts go into providing the infrastructure to collect, sort, and extract materials for reuse.
Ultimately all things degrade but, in a sustainability context, biodegradable is generally taken to mean something that breaks down and reintegrates harmlessly into the earth in a short period of time.
Nature doesn’t define what biodegradable is. Manufacturers and policy setters must work together to understand the period of time within which something must break down and the acceptable byproducts and end products that can result.
For something to be compostable, it must biodegrade under prescribed conditions (of temperature, humidity etc.) within a set period of time, leaving a determined final mass of acceptable end products.
Industrial composting is generally well defined through standards in most countries. The resulting mulch must rightly be of a certain quality to have commercial value and this means tightly controlled processes and composting facilities.
Defining, standardising and supporting sustainability
Definitions, standards and infrastructure – all play a central part in enabling industry and consumers to adopt sustainable practices. Definitions and standards give manufacturers ‘blueprints’ to follow to develop products that will, when they’re no longer useful, break down in an acceptable way or successfully enter recycling processes.
Infrastructure is necessary for consumers to engage in the process of minimizing landfill waste. Local infrastructure – recycling bins, collections, recycling and composting facilities, and so on - provides the means for used products to enter industrial processes to be recycled or composted.
Plastic as a renewable resource
Plastic receives considerable attention in recycling debates and how we dispose of plastics certainly can be a problem. We all need to recycle in our day-to-day lives and, while manufacturers should consider alternatives to single-use, they must also work with government and organizations at national and local levels to recapture materials from products at the end of their first lives.
They must also play their part in informing consumers on matters of sustainability so that they will be motivated to get involved. According to Hi-Cone’s The State of Plastic Recycling report, 80% of surveyed respondents who don’t recycle all plastic said they would do so more frequently if they had more facilities and/or guidance.
Enormous progress has been made to improve sustainability in the last decade but there is still much to do to create the right conditions for all three alternatives to landfill. This takes a collective effort on the part of scientists, manufacturers, policy makers, local governments, waste management organizations and consumers. Inevitably, one size won’t fit all, making it all the more essential that stakeholders engage in driving change and that education and infrastructure play their important parts in supporting and enabling sustainability.
By working together, manufacturers, policy makers, enterprise and individuals can promote an even more sustainable future and a circular economy.