Plastics: Promise or Poison?

We all love plastic. We sleep on plastic mattresses, brush our teeth with it, eat off it, type on it… In fact, plastic pervades our lives. Yet it was not always so. And, by the way, if we love it so much, why do we discard 350 million metric tons of it per year?

There is a parallel between executives’ lives and plastic that we will explore shortly in that many in management feel fit only for a single-use, in danger of obsolescence, or due for recycling (if they are lucky).

But first, did you know that plastic actually occurs naturally?

While we think of plastic as a 20th-century material, natural plastics such as horn, tortoiseshell, amber, rubber and shellac have been worked with since antiquity. Animal horns, malleable when heated, were used for many purposes and products, from medallions to cutlery. The comb-making industry was one of the biggest applications of horn in the 19th century. [See source.]

As natural sources began to dwindle, inventive chemists came up with some of the earliest artificial materials. These included celluloid and then bakelite.

Bakelite sparked a consumer boom in affordable yet highly desirable products. It had a dark brown, wood-like appearance but could be easily mass-produced, making it ideal for bringing new design trends such as Art Deco to the masses. [See source.]

The accidental invention of polyethylene in 1933 opened the door to a surge of consumer products and, in particular, packaging.

Unfortunately, the very properties that make plastics useful also make them slow to biodegrade naturally. On average, plastics require 10 years to break down but some require hundreds of years. Recycling represents one solution to this quandary, however, plastics face numerous obstacle—especially the collection and sortation of waste. Currently 50% of plastic is essentially single-use (i.e., discardable). Bio-plastics are also an alternative utilizing corn starch or other biological materials. They can readily degrade as required but, so far, represent only about 1% of plastic production.

The consequences are dire. Here are just two examples. Microplastics are virtually universal, including in human bodies, so far with unknown medical impacts. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch constitutes several enormous trash collections (mainly plastic) spinning in the Pacific Ocean.  It endangers marine life from the sea floor on up.

And the plastics industry continues to experience growth. “The global plastic market size was estimated at USD 624.8 billion in 2023. And it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.2% from 2024 to 2030.” [See source.]

So is plastic a genie that can perform all sorts of magic to improve life on the planet? Or are we facing a deadly, life-threatening peril?

And, by the way, where is that promised parallel between the lives of executives and the fate of plastic?

Well, plastic recycling so far is not the success it should be:

[A broad University of California study in 2017] still gives us the best overall picture of what happens to the stuff — and it isnt pretty […] About 55 percent was sent straight to landfill or discarded, 8 percent has been incinerated and only 6 percent recycled — and, of that, most was then subsequently discarded to landfill. [See source.] 

Fortunately, the fate of executives interested in a second or third career is far more positive, particularly if they choose to work with the Barrett Group. We have been helping executives recycle their careers or completely change gears for more than 30 years—with great results.

Our five-step process produces excellent career opportunities. (Read “Results Don’t Lie; It’s the ROI!” or “It’s Raining Chairmen” for more information). But you need not take our word for it.

Forbes has now recognized us for the fifth year in a row as one of the best in the business.

Now what about our love affair with plastics? Is it destined to be our undoing?

Well, plastic is a collective term for dozens of different materials that have various characteristics, including the relative ease or difficulty of collection and sortation, melting point, and surfaces that lend themselves to thorough cleaning (or not). Add to this the restrictions on post-consumer plastic trash that define whether a recycled product can be used for food contact (or not), and you begin to understand the limitations of our current recycling technologies.

Luckily, there are a number of advanced recycling solutions that may offer a way forward for plastic and the planet.

The most mature of the advanced recycling technologies is called pyrolysis, which is the application of heat — upwards of 500°C — in the absence of oxygen to break down plastics into their component parts. This typically produces a cocktail of end products, including oils, diesel, naphtha, waxes and monomers. It also produces syngas”, a highly prized mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be built back up into a multitude of useful chemicals. In short, this gets you back to the starting materials industry needs. [See source.]

Europe currently leads in the application of advanced recycling with dozens of plants producing hundreds of thousands of tons already. US firms have also invested more than $7 billion in applying these technologies to plastic waste. Industry bodies see the writing on the wall:

The membership of the ACC, for example, has pledged that all plastic packaging used in the US will be recyclable or reusable in principle by 2030, and that 100 percent will actually be reused or recycled by 2040. There is also the expectation that the UN will bring the gavel down on a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution later this year that will drastically curtail the manufacture of virgin plastic and pile on the pressure to create a circular plastics economy. [See source.]

Recent consumer research suggests that consumers do care about the impact of their purchases on the environment.

The shift in consumer buying, with more consumers willing to pay extra for environmentally friendly products, reinforces the need for companies to increase their commitments to responsible business practices,” said Jessica Long, managing director of strategy and sustainability at Accenture. [See source.]

So, there is some light on the horizon for our love of plastic. With luck it will live up to its promise and create a virtuous cycle of use and reuse within our lifetime.

In the meantime, if you feel that your career could use a nudge in a better direction, your income could do with a bit of a bump, or your professional satisfaction simply does not meet your expectations, you are NOT over the hill or headed for the landfill. We help executives recycle their careers every day, and we can most probably help you.

Take advantage of this opportunity to restart your career. Call us today and breathe a little easier.

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