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Q & A

To Tackle Plastics Pollution, Embrace a Circular Economy

Plastic waste is flowing into the oceans at a rate of a dump truck load every minute. What if that waste isn’t inevitable? Matt Kopac ’09, sustainable business and innovation manager at Burt’s Bees, argues for a fundamentally different approach to sustainability.

Microplastic collected from the Sargasso Sea. Photo: Tom Gruber.
Microplastic collected from the Sargasso Sea. Photo: Tom Gruber.

Q: How do you convey the seriousness of plastics pollution?

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to go on an ocean plastics summit trip to the North Atlantic Gyre off the coast of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea. About 160 participants from businesses, nonprofits, and government came together to learn and work collaboratively to understand and try to address the issue of plastics pollution. As part of that, I went snorkeling in the Sargasso Sea. I was swimming in a soup of micro plastics. Witnessing that really elevated the importance of something I was already committed to and working on.

“About eight million metric tons of plastic go into the ocean on an annual basis. That is a dump truck’s worth every minute.”

About eight million metric tons of plastic go into the ocean on an annual basis. That is a dump truck’s worth every minute. Most plastic materials are going to persist for at least four or five hundred years. While they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of micro plastic, like I swam through, it doesn’t actually go away, which has health consequences. We all ingest about five grams a week of micro plastics, by one account, which is about the size of a credit card.

Q: At Burt’s Bees, you make health and beauty products in plastic packaging.  What are the challenges of improving your waste footprint?

Burt’s Bees has always focused on environmental stewardship and good human rights practices throughout our value chain. Consumers expect it from us. That expectation is both powerful and valuable. We have to continue to earn the trust that people have put in us if we want to remain a leader in our categories of natural beauty and personal care. 

We’ve had standards in place for years ensuring that we are using high levels of recycled content, that we avoid materials that have potential environment health issues, and that we minimize use of materials. For the last seven years, we’ve been a zero-waste-to-landfill business, domestically. Looking for ways to design waste out of our business—both packaging and maintaining our zero-waste-to-landfill commitment—is a big strategic priority.At this point, we have more than 50% recycled content across all packaging. When it comes to plastic bottles for products like shampoos or face cleansers, it can be greater than 90% post-consumer recycled content. Our lip balm packaging has 50% post-consumer recycled content. We’re looking to dramatically increase all of those numbers.

It requires real work by our global strategic sourcing group to identify suppliers who have food-grade PCR (post-consumer recycled resins). It needs to color match whether that’s our iconic Burt’s Bees yellow in our lip balm tubes or the clear bottles or white tubes we use for other products, and there is increasing competition for these materials. 

Q: Is the attention on plastics pollution creating a broader shift in consumers and brands?

More consumers are demanding a more sustainable approach from more of the brands they buy from. The discussion of plastics pollutions is creating a shift in overall mindset in my industry and a lot of industries. And a spotlight has been put on the issue from a variety of sources including the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment being run by the Eleanor MacArthur Foundation and the UN’s Environment Program. The Global Commitment educates companies and the broader public around the issue of plastic waste and plastic pollution with the aim of encouraging a transition from a linear model to a more circular one.

Based on companies’ pledges to increase recycled content, demand is on pace to outstrip supply five-fold by 2025. There won’t be enough recycled content to meet those commitments without a dramatic change in how our recycling system works. 

If we continue to have a recycling system where thousands of local municipalities set their own rules, it is very difficult for both average people and for businesses to ensure that packaging is getting recycled and the recycled materials are available for further use. 

As companies consciously move away from virgin materials to recycled materials, innovative biomaterials, and reuse models we will see incremental improvement. The diversity, variety, and scale of better options will increase, but ultimately if we’re only innovating within the system as it currently exists, there’s going to be barriers to taking that farther.

Q: Why isn’t recycling more comprehensive and effective in the U.S.?

“In most parts of the country the cost of disposal is so much less than the cost of recycling because we don’t properly value the social and environmental impacts of the waste that we create and put into the world.”

Currently, it is much more economical for many communities around the country to waste rather than to not waste. In part, that’s because the way we do recycling is disaggregated and under-invested. There’s no effort to innovate or scale in a way that shows it’s something we really care about. In most parts of the country the cost of disposal is so much less than the cost of recycling because we don’t properly value the social and environmental impacts of the waste that we create and put into the world. 

A lot of our current industrial economy is really what can be called a linear economy, which basically means that we dig up resources, use them once or twice, and then we throw them away. This extends from, I think, a belief when we were building our current industrial economy that resources were unlimited. There was this idea of “away,” a place we could send things where they could be out of sight, out of mind, and wouldn’t come back to us.

We’ve had a mindset that it was a luxury to be able to discard things. There is a great example in the August 1955 Life magazine where they ran a story called “Throw Away Living.” It’s fascinating. The photo is a smiling family throwing a bunch of common disposable items up in the air. They are cheering and celebrating the convenience of no longer needing to wash plates, cups, and utensils because they could just use disposables then throw them out.

Q: How does the linear economy contrast with a circular model?

Whether it’s plastic pollution or climate change, those issues developed because we have externalized the cost of waste. Those are instances where we assumed that waste was inevitable, and now we’re paying the consequences for that. 

A circular economy does not assume waste is inevitable. It seeks to keep materials flowing through the system, reducing or eliminating waste by design. Plastic is useful. But it comes with health, environmental, and social impacts that we haven’t fully accounted for. So, how do we minimize plastic use to just where it’s truly needed? When can we substitute other materials that might be more durable and can be used many more times? When plastic is the best option, what can we do to capture all of it to be used again? 

This circular approach is just a different way of looking at our economy, and one that incidentally creates a tremendous amount of economic value. In many cases it creates more jobs than our current model.

Q: To what degree do you see it’s feasible to make a step-by-step piecemeal shift toward a circular economy? To what degree would it require kind of a fundamental shift?

We’re going to need that more transformative shift, but incremental improvements coming together create demand for the more dramatic systems-level change. Innovation is happening in the private sector. Entrepreneurs are unlocking new models that bigger companies can adopt. NGOs are pushing improvement through their own innovation or through activism. Once there are enough improvements in enough places, that sets the stage for a much bigger fundamental shift.

We know we have to take steps to address these challenges—climate change, plastics pollution, and others. I think we can create policy frameworks that lead to fantastic innovation. 

Some people argue that regulations inherently kill innovation and kill jobs.  I think we do have to be careful and thoughtful about regulation to avoid unintended consequences, but entrepreneurs and innovators can thrive within the proper constraints. Embedding the value of environmental systems—versus assuming they are valueless—can be better for the market and better for the world. 

Q: Where do you see business’ efforts to address plastics pollution going in the next few years?

It’s a bit of a messy space right now. A lot of companies are upping their investment and their attention to the issue. A lot of different organizations and different collaboratives are forming.  They are adopting slightly different frames of reference, slightly different positions. 

I think there’s a healthy tension between the interests of companies and the perspectives of NGO organizations. I think we’re now in that formation space where all of these different organizations are coming together to advocate for what they want the policy to be, what they want the future to look like. I think we will see a lot come from that in the next three to five years, depending on what happens from a political standpoint in the country.

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan.
Department: Q & A