Will the circular economy "blueprint" be a game changer for the plastics and packaging industry?

As the  President and CEO of NatureWorks, and  a  regular speaker and participant at  SustPack,  Marc Verbruggen recently  discussed with  SustPack  organizers his insights into brand owners and consumers preceptions of bioplastics, and  how  the Ellen  MacArthur Foundation's "game changing vision" for the future’ of the plastics industry, will this affect the packaging industry.

As a regular speaker and participant at our sustainability in packaging events how have you seen this conference evolve over the years?

Over time, there’s been a real maturing in the knowledge and depth of understanding, both of the issues that the packaging industry must address, and of the potential solutions. The conversations and discussion are becoming more nuanced – and realistic - in terms of what it will take to continue to make progress. SusPack is one of the conferences the NatureWorks team looks forward to.  

How are brand owner and consumer perceptions of bioplastics changing?

What we’re seeing is that brand owners are increasingly looking at bioplastics holistically, in terms of their overall functionality.  What I mean is that the focus is broadening from just “bio”, to “plastics”, and we welcome that.   Put another way, in the plastics community, when we hear the word “plastic”, we think of a spectrum of polymers with different performance characteristics, costs, sustainability attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. By contrast, until recently, the word “bioplastic” often carried a narrow connotation only of something that was either compostable, or plant-based with limited functionality and a cost premium. We’re glad to see that changing.

The world of bioplastics has a tremendous breadth of materials today. Each of these, like all polymers, has unique features that make it suitable or not suitable for an application. Once we get beyond categorizing bioplastics as just biobased and/or biodegradable we make real strides in terms of where, when, and why these functional polymers provide the better solutions in terms of meeting business, environmental, and social needs.

Can you tell us a bit more about your recently announced partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation?

While the language of the “circular economy” can be compelling and attractive, it can also be a little abstract. That’s why we were pleased, when in 2016, the Foundation literally “made it real”, with what was a practical circular economy “blueprint” for the packaging plastics industries.  They provided for the first time what had long been lacking – a comprehensive, truly global perspective on the packaging innovation needs at a societal level, and furthermore, understanding it as business opportunity for industry.   Their just launched 2017 report further advances the blueprint with specific, actionable priorities that we can get behind.   This is why they’re a natural partner for NatureWorks, because they strike the right balance between “ evolutionary and revolutionary” – their call to action respects current materials in the market, while simultaneously creating space for significant new materials innovation – materials like our own.

You’ve talked about their ‘game changing vision for the future’ of the plastics industry – how will this affect the packaging industry?

The packaging industry has grown up and thrived using plastics that work very well (from a performance perspective, they do a great job packaging and protecting their contents – that’s their first function of course).  With this, it’s no surprise that globally, packaging plastics production volumes have shown such huge growth.    At the same time, outside of their performance attributes, packaging plastics have been almost a “one dimensional play”.   What I mean is that what’s been missing until recently is consideration of how packaging plastics impact along 3 other dimensions: i) the implications of how they’re sourced; ii) the externalities resulting from their manufacture; and iii) their recovery.  Simply put, we see the packaging industry now beginning to look at, and indeed, in some cases to rethink itself, along all 4 of these dimensions – considering where they materials come from, how they’re manufactured, how they perform, and where they go after use.   This is a very exciting time.  

What changes would you like to see in the waste and recycling sector?

Well, big picture, we’d like to see what’s currently called “waste”, instead redefined, regarded, and respected, as a valuable resource stream, and many in the sector are already working to achieve just that over time.   Now, that can sound a lofty goal J  And so, while we’ve got our sights set firmly on that long term goal, for example, working a portfolio of recovery projects in conjunction with industry, in the closer term, we’re intrigued by the Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) discussion.  We believe that, done right, SMM can be a way to move toward more holistic solid waste policy, all while supporting Circular Economy strategies.


What are you most looking forward to about SustPack?

The conversations with attendees. At this show people want to learn and share. It is a wonderful environment for that and that is what I’m anticipating.