Making Plastic More Than Disposable: The Next Great Brand Challenge?

Plastic is one of the great inventions of the 20th Century. But is it a half-formed innovation? We need to push the innovation of plastic further, and throw the current brand of plastic in the recycling bin.

“We live in a platform world,” an enthusiastic Jason Foster, of Replenish, told me at the recent Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey. “Bulk, weight and mass are the new parameters for innovation.”

If this all sounds a bit confusing, let me backtrack. Foster has created an entirely new format for plastic spray bottles and containers that rethinks many of the core presumptions of the category.

The big idea? Move past the current cheap disposable bottle (and mindset) toward a new paradigm of utility. The goal is to design bottles that are truly reusable.

An added benefit of his design is that the bottles are designed for consumer mixing, they’re shipped sans the 99% water that fills most cleaner bottles. Instead, they feature an innovative reservoir that—much like a bar shot dispenser—can shoot pre-measured concentrate into the bottle for consumers to mix with their own tap water.

This platform is the linchpin of his new line of cleaners. But the innovation is catching on outside the category. Foster is in talks with a number of other companies who want to license his bottle for non-cleaner purposes.

“I want to combine the age old concept of durability, longevity and utility, with an innovative, intuitive design. Once you use Replenish, you don’t ever look at the old spray bottle or container design the same way again.” Foster has great faith in plastic. The problem, he believes, is that it’s an innovation that’s half complete.

“When plastic exploded on the consumer market after the second World War, it opened up a world of new possibilities. But its success was its downfall. Plastic became ubiquitous and cheap, and therefore disposable. In our excitement, we completely neglected to think through the design of its entire life cycle. Instead, we simply focused on getting it to the consumer. Then, when we finally realized there was a problem with plastic waste, we focused all our attention on the back end, on recycling and repurposing, thinking this would make the problem go away. But it hasn’t.”

Facts bear out Foster’s point: after 40 years in mass circulation, only about 7% of North American plastic is recycled.

Is Less The Answer, Or More?

Douglas Woodring believes part of the problem lies in the throwaway culture we’ve created around plastic products. The solution, he believes, is to take excessive plastic right out of the supply chain.

Woodring, co-founder of the California and Hong-Kong based Ocean Recovery Alliance, made his first voyage to the infamous Pacific Ocean Garbage Gyre in 2009. A year later, at the Clinton Global Initiative, he launched the Plastic Disclosure Project.

The PDP was inspired by the Carbon Disclosure Project, an international effort through which over 3,000 organizations voluntarily measure their greenhouse gas emissions. The PDP aims to get companies to establish benchmarks for more efficient plastic use, either by reducing plastic, or by raising the level of plastic recycled in their facilities.

The bottom line, says Woodring, is that “we want less plastic going into the ecosystem.”

Driving plastic reduction through self regulation and (ultimately) investor pressure works in the long term. But is there a short term innovation shift that can help us turn the tide?

Focus On Innovative Recycling

One such idea was revealed to me by John Viera, director of sustainable business strategies at Ford.

In our conversation, Viera rolled out a list of sustainability-inspired innovations in the new Ford Focus that warrant an article of their own (look for it in the coming weeks).

The Focus’s plastic parts, however, provide a wonderful example of how to push the boundaries of recycling. Components like underbody shields, wheel arch liners and air cleaner assemblies are created in part from old pop bottles and milk jugs. Not only does this redirect plastic that can’t be recycled into more bottles, but it replaces car parts made of potentially non-recyclable materials.

In other words, it’s an entirely new use for plastic, reduces the plastic waste stream incrementally, and rethinks possible applications for this incredible material.

Lessons   

Hearing John Viera talk about new uses for old materials, I realized we don’t use nearly enough creativity reimagining the possible. Certainly, an old plastic bottle can become a new plastic bottle. But who’s to say an old plastic bottle can’t—with a tweak in formulation—replace parts traditionally machined from metal or fiberglass?

Speaking of tweaks, Jason Foster’s plastic spray bottle innovation started as a tweak on three standards – the durable glass bottle, throwaway spray cleaner platforms, and a concentrate dispenser we’ve all seen many times before. Rethinking context is key to innovation. If you want to reimagine your plastic use, get outside that plastic jar and look at it with fresh eyes.

And finally, there’s a lesson to be learned from Doug Woodring—a successful innovation pipeline has both short and long term projects. Although the Plastic Disclosure Project will take time to gain momentum, its long term benefit will be significant. And it just might give manufacturers a more fully-formed idea of how to make more, with less plastic.

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