TrustedParts x A

How Manufacturers Can Shift Away from Plastics

Companies and governments are scrambling to address plastic pollution’s environmental and public health impacts as lawsuits and greenwashing claims ramp up. A recent study by the Minderoo Foundation suggests corporate liability from plastics lawsuits could reach $20 billion by 2030 in the United States. To avoid litigation, companies need to shift away from plastics.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world produces 400 million tons of plastic annually and could reach 1,100 million tons by 2050. The manufacturing sector is mainly a driving force of plastic consumption. Here’s a closer look at the ongoing plastic pollution crisis and how manufacturers can reduce plastic waste.

The Problem With Plastics

Concerns about plastics aren’t unfounded — scientific evidence has revealed its reach and negative implications for ecosystems, wildlife and society. Researchers have even discovered plastic particles from 95 kilometers away in a remote region of the Pyrenees mountains.

Plastic pollution’s effect on marine wildlife is also well documented. With 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic entering the ocean yearly, it’s no surprise pollution has threatened some of the world’s most beloved species. However, plastic also impacts human health.

According to a 2020 study conducted by the Endocrine Society and International Pollutants Elimination Network, leaching from over 1,000 known plastic manufacturing chemicals — including bisphenol A, phthalates, per- and polyfluoralkyl substances and dioxins — contain endocrine-disrupting properties. These additives are common in everyday items like cookware, toys and clothing.

Plastics can also negatively affect the gut microbiome, respiratory tract and cardiovascular system. Other studies suggest children and adults could ingest over 100,000 microplastic particles daily. Depending on where you live, this might equate to a credit card’s amount of plastic annually.

Between the current rate of plastic leakage and the hundreds of years it could take to break down, exposure to plastic is unavoidable. In a world where less than 1% of freshwater is suitable for drinking, protecting resources from plastic pollution is critical. Efforts to reduce plastics require an all-hands-on-deck approach — especially from mass producers in manufacturing.

4 Ways Manufacturers Can Reduce Plastic Use

Increasing lawsuits against manufacturers for the use of plastics should be enough to place all companies on high alert. Here are four ways manufacturers can move away from plastics and become part of the solution.

1.   Create a Circular Plastics Economy

“Recycling” has become a buzzword in the conversation surrounding plastics. However, it’s only one facet of a growing issue. Manufacturers must question the current system and take responsibility for closing the plastic product loop.

The first step is eliminating plastics people don’t need. Is it worth providing plastic shopping bags for people to use and throw away after a few minutes? Those bags typically end up in overflowing landfills.

The same could be said for plastic packaging. Of course, to ensure this happens effectively, an overhaul of current packaging materials, innovation and reprocessing technologies are necessary.

Lastly, creating a circular plastic economy demands manufacturers organize closed-loop collection models with a clear regulatory framework. Any business that produces and distributes products in plastic packaging must set protocols for its collection, recyclability, reuse or composting. If more facilities follow suit, Pew Charitable Trusts researchers estimate humanity can divert 80% of plastics from oceans within the next 20 years.

2.   Reduce Plastic Leakage

A circular economy would help keep plastics within the loop and out of the natural world, including landfills. However, manufacturers should be aware of the implications of internally-induced plastic leakage and set preventative measures.

According to an International Union for Conservation of Nature report, plastic leakage amounts to 229,000 tons annually in the Mediterranean sea, with a high of 610,000 tons. Macroplastics account for about 6% of the plastic debris found. Should plastic leakage continue at the current rate, scientists expect this number will double by 2040.

For the marine wildlife in the Mediterranean, a plastic bottle or bag can suffocate them when wrapped around their heads, while plastic ingestion can lead to sickness or death. Reducing the internal use of plastic and concentrating on reusable containers is critical for manufacturers to shift away from newly-produced plastics within their operations.

3.   Redefine Plastics Protocol

Manufacturers must take a collaborative approach to the global plastics economy, redefining their protocols and terminology. Currently, the system is ineffective, confusing and fosters greenwashing. According to a Google Cloud survey, 58% of global companies admit they overstate their sustainability — in the U.S., 72% of companies make the same admission.

Greenwashing has produced several lawsuits against manufacturers. For example, the Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company in 2021, claiming it touted sustainability packaging investments on its website yet remains one of the top producers of plastic pollution. In the most recent 2021 Brand Audit Report from Break Free From Plastic, Coca-Cola retained its first-place spot as the top polluter for the fourth consecutive year.

Developing a new protocol will allow manufacturers to align their initiatives and materials choices for recyclable, biodegradable or reusable outcomes. It’ll also clearly define standard terms companies currently and incorrectly use to describe their sustainability.

4.   Develop New Policy Frameworks

Governments and manufacturers can work together to create policies that improve manufacturing without plastics. In the past, manufacturers have exhibited conflicting agendas that led to non-compliance. Engaging in constructive discussions with governments is necessary to align initiatives toward a sustainable sector.

Participating in discussions and having a say in the rollout of policies is better for manufacturers anyway. It ensures everyone is on the same page and manufacturing companies hold one another accountable.

Manufacturers Must Clean Up Their Act to Avoid Litigation

Manufacturers are at a crossroads — either align with the calls to reduce their environmental and societal impact or face litigation. To stay in business and avoid increasing lawsuits, they should deploy the necessary protocols to reduce plastic waste and consumption.

About The Author