In the media

Bloomberg Businessweek: Sustainable Packaging

Bloomberg Radio

18 March 2024

Tony Perrotta, PA Consulting’s sustainability and regenerative economy expert, is featured on Bloomberg Businessweek Radio discussing innovative recycling solutions alongside Bloomberg hosts Carol Massar and Tim Stenovec. 

Tony’s segment runs from the 1:00-10:00 minute mark. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Carol: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the US has a combined, combined recycling rate of only 32% for materials including glass, plastic, cardboard, and paper. That figure reflects collections from industrial, commercial and residential trash.

Tim: When you hear 32% when it comes to materials like glass, plastic, cardboard, and paper, that's from the EPA. How do you think we get that number higher?

Tony: It's a massive opportunity. There's a number of ways that we can work together to get that number higher. First technology, better mechanical recycling practices leveraged by AI and robotics. Second, new recycling methods are coming on the scene, things like chemical recycling that go beyond just mechanical recycling. And finally, what we are most excited about is a move away from plastics altogether into alternative materials. As low as those recycling rates are, it does represent opportunity both for enhanced collection but also a new world and a new horizon of new materials.

Carol: What is it though that moves the needle the most in terms of sustainability initiatives?

Tony: In the world of materials like plastics, aluminum, and glass, what we've seen, especially here in the US, is a bottle return deposit system does a lot to move recycling rates upward. So here in the US and in my hometown of Connecticut now, we just raised the redemption rate from 5 cents to 10 cents. It's been unchanged for the better part of three decades. So that was a major move. Bills and initiatives like that do an immense amount to be able to increase the collection of those materials.

Tim: What are the regulations around companies? Because it seems like that really is what moves the needle with this stuff.

Tony: Regulation is definitely the tip of the spear. There's been a lot of talk around extended producer responsibility and the cost that firms will incur as a result of manufacturing and producing these items. But again, it’s a major opportunity for the companies that get it right. At the end of the day, sustainability is in essence talking about using resources properly and that allocation of those resources. It means better business.

Carol: How has the recent news from the SEC and chair Gary Gensler had an impact? I'm thinking about the SEC now forcing companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions for the first time, but we should point out, watered down a key requirement after there was some heavy lobbying from industry groups. But this alone, how might it change the story and the impact and move us to a much more sustainable world?

Tony: Well, I think the story that we've seen unfold for the past 10 years is there is a real embracing of this concept in particular by the capital markets. So the lack of a climate action plan inside a company is the lack of a business continuity plan. It makes you less investible. So by embracing the notion of sustainability, greenhouse gas emission, and being transparent in that data collection in your activity, in essence as a leader of an organization, you're helping make your firm a more investible asset class and you’re future proofing your own business.

Tim: I want to talk a little bit about other issues that we've talked about on our program when it comes to sustainability, and a lot of that has to do with the effects that we're living with each and every day because of decisions that have been made in production over the last 50 to 100 years. We talk about single use plastics and the idea that we're starting to see microplastics show up in places that we do not want them in. We talk about PFAS, these, so-called forever chemicals, tainting water streams, and the water that we're drinking just from the tap in certain areas. How do you think about all this stuff, Tony, and ways to keep yourself safe?

Tony: It's clear to a large number of us that the amount of plastic that we're producing at scale is just untenable. On top of that to your well-made point, the medical community is stepping in and every week discovering more and more places that plastics in particular show up. What is heartening and promising is a whole raft of new technologies coming onto the landscape. Things like seaweeds, alginates, and plant-based fibers are being used to replace plastics. You’ve got companies like Notpla, they won an Earthshot prize late last year. PA actually helped them with their initial technology. We're seeing a whole revolution in the world of plant-based fibers. There's a technology called PulPac where they're using fibers to replace plastics of all kinds. So as disheartening as one may see some of the data look like, there are immense opportunities to be had and new technologies coming onto the marketplace every day.

Carol: How quickly though, can it change the needle?

Tony: I would offer one example that just dropped last week. Keurig, the coffee company. They disrupted the world of coffee years ago with this single serve pod, and we all get to choose the flavor and the style and the amount we want in our homes. They just launched last week in the US a new product called the K Round. It's basically a plastic free coffee capsule that you can use in your home without the need for using plastics or aluminum. It's that type of innovation that will not only solve the material in the waste side of it, but I expect that to be a huge commercial and consumer success.

Tim: Wait, these are the ones, you don't have to send these back to recycle, right?

Tony: No. It's literally a pressed coffee pod that's coated in a non-plastic coating. You drop that pressed coffee pod into Keurig's new machine and you get the same amazing experience that we all come to know and expect just without all the extra packaging.

Tim: There's some stuff that you just feel like can't be made in a sustainable way, like Legos, the things I step on every day.

Tony: For Lego? Not yet, but we should have those folks call PA and we can help them. The medical industry is moving more sustainably. That's another key area that's been problematic for safety reasons and regulatory. But again, technology is here to save us. There's a lot of amazing discoveries on the horizon.

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