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A Solution to the Plastics Problem?

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Tamara Chapman

Senior Managing Editor

Senior Managing Editor"

Professor’s new book argues that innovation can address environmental emergency

Feature  •
Jack Buffington

In his urgent new book, “Peak Plastic: The Rise or Fall of Our Synthetic World” (Praeger, 2019), Jack Buffington offers some realistic solutions to the planet’s mounting, but not yet insurmountable, plastics problem. A professor of supply chain management at DU’s Daniels College of Business and University College, Buffington argues that supply chain innovation represents our best hope for addressing the problem without sacrificing the many benefits plastic brings. Buffington, who is responsible for warehousing and fulfillment for MillerCoors, is also the author of “The Recycling Myth.”

“Peak Plastic” arrives on the scene just as the issue is getting unprecedented media attention and just as several of the world’s largest plastic chemical manufacturers have collectively committed $1 billion toward minimizing, managing and preventing plastic waste. With spurring dialogue and countering apathy about the plastics problem in mind, Buffington recently fielded some emailed questions from the DU Newsroom. 

The public is starting to hear more and more about the plastics problem. How bad is it?

In truth, nobody really knows the answer to your question. It is bad that 380 million tons of plastic are being produced annually and only 7 percent is recycled. It is bad that 70 percent of all plastic ever produced lies in waste, where it leaches unnaturally over hundreds of years in every corner of the planet, even the most remote, such as the Arctic Circle, Mount Everest and throughout our oceans, which encompass 71 percent of the planet. And it is certainly bad that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Experts estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

But does the bad outweigh the good?  Our world could not operate today without plastic, and it is becoming the most important material in the reduction of poverty across the developing world. Plastic is our ultimate contradiction for the 21st century — a material so indispensable to our lives and perhaps the greatest threat to it.  My goal was to describe this seemingly impossible paradox through a readable book. 

What do you mean by peak plastic?

Peak plastic is the point in time (2030) when the marginal benefit of plastic to society is overtaken by its catastrophic impact to the environment — and perhaps to our own health. In some locations around the world, such as the slums in Southeast Asia, an argument can be made that peak plastic has already been reached. The date of 2030 is not intended to be a prediction, but rather a rallying point for why we need a paradigm shift away from conventional programs that chase symptoms, not problems, and focus on disruptive innovations that can be achieved in time if we begin the process very soon.

You note that the supply chain helped to create the plastics problem, in part through innovations in packaging.  Can the supply chain really innovate our way out of this problem? And what does this innovation look like?

Yes and no. Not if we count on today’s supply chain system to solve the problem; this model is a linear system that is built upon economic growth through waste. However, if we redefine the future of supply chain management to how nature works — growth in the reuse rather than the proliferation of waste — the problem can be solved. Nature is the ultimate supply chain as the waste product from one entity becomes the input material for another, leading to a system of growth and zero waste.

Is this a metaphor or a possibility in the future? In the book, I lay out solutions for how today’s model of a closed-loop system is just a metaphor, while what can be done in the future is a reality. So yes, it’s possible.

It sounds as though we should have launched this kind of innovation years ago. What will it take to jumpstart progress?  

For too long the solution to the plastic problem has been unquestionably recognized as today’s conventional recycling and environmental programs, best noted in the Scandinavian nations like Sweden. Everyone is locked in that if we just do what they do, the problem will be solved. Because I got my PhD in Sweden, I have seen these solutions firsthand and recognize them for what they are — simply back-end mitigation schemes rather than solutions that address the root cause of the problem. Good is the enemy of great, so the irony is that the best, well-intended efforts may be the greatest inhibitors to innovation progress. But don’t believe me, see it for yourself: Understand the plastic supply chain from its beginning (design) to the end (recycle/reuse), and you will see that it is the entire supply chain that is broken, not the collection and recycling process. There is overwhelming research evidence that I present in my book that our conventional wisdom regarding recycling is the barrier to innovation, even as it is intended to fix the problem.

Should policy makers play a role — whether with carrots or sticks — in addressing the problem?

Policy makers can be helpful if they drive home the message of environmental sustainability and economic growth, rather than the false narrative of one or the other. Does it make any sense to punish those who wish to consume, especially those in the developing world who seek the same lifestyle as us, as a way of reducing extreme poverty? Or should policy makers turn a blind eye from the environmental catastrophe as a matter of enabling economic growth? It is such an unnecessary policy debate when you consider that a model of environmental sustainability and economic growth is perhaps the greatest opportunity for transformation in the 21st century.

In the short term, how can the supply chain work to keep plastics out of our waterways and oceans?

Because 90 percent of ocean plastic is from Asia and Africa, the short-term challenges should focus on the developing nations of the global southIn the book, I promote the informal supply chains of the developing world, otherwise known as waste pickers, as the key to short-term bandages until more sustainable supply chains are put into place. The good news is that these innovators from the developing world are even better than I gave them credit for being; the best are achieving recycling rates of almost 80 percent, as good as some of the best nations in the world.  

You fault environmentalists for holding consumers responsible rather than producers. But what role do and should consumers play in tackling the problem?

I hold consumers responsible for doing their part through recycling (incremental innovation) and producers for solving the problem through a true closed supply chain system (disruptive innovation). 

Readers and consumers will be glad to know that, for all your alarm about the scale of the plastics problem, your book is nothing if not optimistic. What makes you feel so hopeful?

I am hopeful because the story of plastic in history has been so hopeful. It has provided clean water to those without, enabled food systems to produce more and waste less, and even has been embedded into our bodies in medical procedures. So why not keep the purpose of plastic in society, while at the same time transforming the supply chain system to achieve economic growth and environmental sustainability?