Revamping the Plastics Cycle with Emerging Technologies

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

For eco-conscious consumers, plastics have become public enemy number one. Despite the fact that “the plastic problem” is not new—scientists have been warning of the potential for the material to wreak environmental havoc for more than three decades—the issue has been made widely visible by the rise of social media and popular documentaries like Blue Planet II. Images of sea creatures tangled in plastic packaging and waste-clogged waterways have made the rounds online, eliciting public outrage.

Technology like AI, IoT and blockchain will be a critical puzzle piece for curbing plastic pollution.

As a result, anti-plastic policies are popping up around the globe. In the U.S., New York and California have already prohibited single-use plastic bags, while Maine issued an outright ban of polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers. Across the Atlantic, the European Union overwhelmingly voted in favor of banning 10 types of disposable products including plastic utensils, plates, and cotton swabs in 2018.

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But finding sustainable solutions for the staggering amount of plastic the world produces on an annual basis—estimated to be between 320 to 450 million metric tons—will involve rethinking each stage of its life cycle to encourage more sustainable consumerism.

Technology will be a critical puzzle piece for curbing plastic pollution. Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, and other emerging technologies may supplement efforts to redesign packaging, revamp recycling programs, and reimagine the way consumers use—and reuse—everyday products.

The Manufacturer’s Dilemma

Plastics are appealing to manufacturers because they’re cheap, versatile, and virtually indestructible. These same qualities, however, make them an environmental hazard. Composite plastics—like the toothbrush your dentist hands out to dozens of patients every day—can take centuries to decompose. When they do break down, they often end up in the ocean in the form of microplastics, which pose dangers to sea life and can ultimately become an unwelcome and potentially harmful ingredient in human diets.

But the truth is that plastics are prolific in our modern lives. They are integral to products ranging from sterile medical devices to food-grade storage bins. And the material’s versatile, hardy nature has helped humanity achieve incredible feats—we could not, for instance, have gone to the moon without it.

The Lush app serves up “digital packaging” when customers scan products on their mobile devices. Image courtesy of Lush.

But it’s the cheap, easily disposable plastics that have generated the most backlash in recent years. Much of this type of plastic comes in the form of packaging. Today, some consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are attempting to tackle the problem by eliminating packaging entirely. Cosmetics brand Lush, for example, has become famous for producing “naked,” completely unpackaged products, such as signature bath bombs, shampoo bars, and other beauty products.

Lush is also adding AI into the mix: The Lush Lens feature on the brand’s app uses machine learning to identify products when customers scan them on a mobile device. The app recognizes the item and displays the product’s ingredients and usage instructions, eliminating the need for plastic signage or labels. Lush has even spun off its own technology arm, Lush Digital, to explore 3D-printed bath products, as well as how AI, image recognition, and augmented reality (AR) may contribute to sustainability efforts.

From Use to Reuse

Agilyx is an Oregon-based company taking an opposite but equally inventive approach to using AI to combat plastic pollution. Instead of trying to eradicate plastics, Agilyx uses chemical recycling to create circular pathways for difficult-to-recycle polymers like polystyrene. Using a chemical process, Agilyx breaks the materials back to basic polymers in the form of an oil. The oil is then sold to refineries and turned into a range of products including virgin polymers and plastics, as well as low-carbon fuels like diesel and jet fuel.

Joe Vaillancourt, the company’s CEO, has been involved in the waste management industry for more than three decades. He says that Agilyx’s products produce about 50 to 70% less carbon than traditionally manufactured items.

The chemistry of it all is highly complex, he explains, and AI is part of the formula. “If you go to 10 recycling facilities and you take a random sample of the plastic waste, you’re going to get a statistically different chemical composition. We can manage that complexity using our database to map out more chemical recycling pathways,” explains Vaillancourt.

Vaillancourt believes that AI will help Agilyx keep pace with evolving trends. “We’re going to continue seeing shifts in design, materials, and construction. So, while we will continue to use AI on the efficiency side, more importantly … We’re going to use AI to advance the recyclability of a changing set of manufacturers’ packaging.”

Agilyx isn’t the only organization envisioning a cyclical path for consumer goods. One initiative recycling company TerraCycle launched in 2019 is resurrecting the “milkman model” for products ranging from deodorant to dish soap. The program, aptly named “Loop,” aims to change the consumer shopping experience by redesigning product packaging for multiple uses. Products are delivered via a reusable tote, and when packages are empty, customers can return them to be cleaned, refilled, and redelivered.

“What we’re really trying to combat is the idea of disposability and single-use.”

—Anthony Rossi, VP, global business development, Loop

Anthony Rossi, VP, global business development at Loop, says the program is less about eliminating plastics altogether and more about changing mindsets.

“What we’re really trying to combat is the idea of disposability and single-use,” he says, noting that the plastics used in Loop’s packaging are akin to the durability of a Nalgene bottle—the famously unbreakable water bottles beloved by adventure-seekers around the world.

“We believe that AI and blockchain technology [are] going to have a huge impact on the platform as it grows,” he says. “As we’re setting up the back-end infrastructure of Loop, we’re working with several partners to make this a smart platform. We know that it can’t just be built on sustainability; it needs to be built on convenience. It needs to be a phenomenal shopping experience. That’s been a North Star in building this platform: Making sustainability irresistible to the consumer,” he says.

The Power of Collaboration

Plastic pollution is a multifaceted issue, and addressing it will require collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Manufacturers, politicians, waste and recycling companies, corporations, and, yes, consumers, too, will need to work together.

At Agilyx, partnerships with third-party companies are crucial. Agilyx is involved with a wide range of corporate partners including Delta Airlines and Monroe Energy. Together, they’re working to convert waste mixed plastics into crude oil targeted to be refined for jet fuel.

A number of coalitions have also cropped up to bring private companies, NGOs, and business decision-makers together to mitigate plastic pollution. NextWave, a global consortium, is one such initiative launched in 2017. NextWave builds off Dell Technologies’ ocean-bound plastic program, a pioneering effort to use plastics collected off beaches and other coastal areas in some of its products.

As part of the company’s broader environmental initiatives, Dell Technologies pledged to the United Nations to increase its annual use of ocean plastics 10-times by 2025, and in 2017, partnered with Lonely Whale to unite companies across a wide range of industries to create the world’s first network of ocean-bound plastics supply chains. From this initial working group, the NextWave program was born. NextWave member companies are on track to divert 25,000 tons of plastics—equal to 1.2 billion single-use plastic bottles— from oceans by 2025.

“Imagine a world where we can track from source through to recycling and reuse a specific type of plastic used in a product.”

—Dune Ives, executive director, Lonely Whale

Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, explains that “radical collaboration” is at the heart of NextWave’s mission and vision. The organization’s primary goal is to spark innovative ideas that will positively impact the health of the world’s oceans.

Ives says that emerging technologies will play a key part in facilitating the type of industry cross-over such ambitious endeavors will require. “Imagine a world where we can track from source through to recycling and reuse a specific type of plastic used in a product,” she says. AI, for example, can be used to identify plastic pollution from other materials in marine environments. IoT smart sensors may track plastic packaging throughout its consumer journey. Blockchain can be used to build new supply chains and improve “end of life” processes for the products that people use every day. Even virtual reality (VR) programs might be used to drum up support for plastic waste reduction.

“With VR, we can engage the hearts and minds of individuals no matter where they live, showing both the destruction plastic pollution causes, as well as the solutions and what can be done through application of technology,” says Ives.

The stats may be daunting, and the images of plastic-laden seas stark, but there’s reason to remain hopeful. With the aid of emerging technologies, we can rethink the role plastic plays in our lives, from how we produce it to how it’s consumed and recycled. The life cycle of plastic doesn’t have to end in our oceans.