Sustainability in 2021 with Caroline Potter – VP for Sustainability

Sustainability has become a watchword over recent years as concerns around the environmental, social, and ethical impacts of various products and industries have climbed the news agenda and become more of a priority for consumers, companies and investors alike. Many businesses are now keen to be seen to be addressing these challenges and are increasingly aware of the potential negative impact of not doing so. Here, Caroline Potter – VP for Sustainability – shares her thoughts on a small selection of the factors impacting how we view sustainability in 2021, as well as a handful of the issues she predicts will be important in the coming year.

How has Covid 19 impacted sustainability?

The pandemic has brought sustainability issues home for many of us, often literally. With many people now working remotely and spending considerably more time in one location, the impact of our new habits on the amount of food waste, packaging and other detritus we generate as consumers has become hard to ignore. Research conducted throughout 2020 had already begun to reveal changes in consumer attitudes and behaviours[1]. Consumers are demanding increasing transparency around a product’s sustainability[2], traceability of the life cycle of its constituent parts[3], and for greater trust in the commitments made by companies – they want specific tangible targets and promises that deliver. One example of how we might address these concerns, food upcycling, is the topic of a recent blog from Oakland Innovation.

What can we do differently in 2021?

As we start to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic, to quote one initiative operating in this space, we have an opportunity to change from ‘business as usual’ by adopting more sustainable strategies and practices, something Oakland has covered in a series of new case studies. It’s also important that we think about the way in which we build back. There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘circular economy’ over the years but, in practice, this has often entailed tackling one problem only for an undesirable, unintended, or unanticipated consequence to crop up somewhere else. I think we’ll see a lot more ‘looking at the bigger picture’ in 2021, with businesses trying to ensure that they consider the sustainability of the whole lifecycle of a product, from development and use through to disposal and beyond, rather than focusing on one specific issue.

How will sustainably derived biomaterials develop in 2021?

Single-use plastics have been a growing concern for a number of years, and 2021 is unlikely to be an exception. With the ‘circular economy’ in mind, there are various points in the lifecycle of plastic products where we could intervene. This starts with lowering the carbon footprint of production, which can be achieved through the use of conventional plastics, chemically speaking, created from more sustainable biological sources, but this still leaves the problem of what we do with the plastic once it’s been used.

New polymers are being developed which – while biodegradable, and seemingly solving this problem – present their own new challenges both in performance and at end of life. Our waste management infrastructure requires significant investment, as these polymers are typically seen as a contaminant in food waste and compost processes.  We may see further developments in a viable end of life route for biodegradable plastics in 2021, and also in the functional and commercial advancement of these materials.

What can we do about microplastics?

Microplastics have been a topic of discussion for some time now, but interest continues to grow as we find signs of the plastic fragments in increasingly remote or previously undiscovered locations, in the environment, wildlife, and even accumulating inside organs in the human body thanks to their presence in drinking water and the food chain. Our understanding of the effects of microplastics – particularly the potential impact on our health – continues to grow[4]. So too does our understanding of how plastics in general break down and the complexity of the different types of microplastics found in the environment – and what mitigating action we can take as a result – is still developing. Interest in this area is likely to continue throughout 2021, as more findings emerge and consumers increasingly demand action be taken.

Can sustainability be improved in healthcare?

‘Sustainable healthcare’ is another hot topic that’s likely to rise in prominence in 2021, perhaps a sign of just how seriously the sustainability message is being taken by consumers, businesses and legislators. The major issues here are the overall carbon footprint of healthcare and single-use plastics. Covid-19 and our questioning of our everyday norms seems likely to be driving this focus, at least in part, as the refuse from fast-food meals which used to litter our streets gives way to facemasks and spent bottles of hand sanitiser, leading some to question ‘has sustainable healthcare’s time finally arrived?[1]’ While the pressure on the healthcare sector to become sustainable may be less keenly felt, it seems likely that the type of thinking that goes into consumer-facing products around sustainability will be increasingly applied to medical applications as we emerge from Covid-19.

What are ‘forever chemicals’?

‘Forever Chemicals’ are properly known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the world since the 1940s and are very resistant to degradation[i]. The impact of these chemicals – which, like microplastics, are increasingly being found in the natural environment and food sources – are linked to a range of negative impacts on human health and particularly their implications for the spread and treatment of Covid-19, including whether they increase risk of more severe reactions to the virus or are making vaccines less effective. Disposal of items containing PFAS is impacting landfill disposal, particularly due to tainted water run-off, as well as organic recycling where PFAS is also a contaminant. Action to replace PFAS in product manufacturing and to tackle its effects on waste management have been slow, but the issue is likely to become more pressing in 2021, as we begin to take more steps to replace PFAS and gain even more understanding over their effects.

Conclusions

This blog is by no means an exhaustive overview of the many areas of sustainability that are likely to come into focus in 2021; we could have examined renewable energy, carbon capture, battery technology, how sensors and digital technology can be harnessed to help achieve lower environmental impact, among other topics. We will no doubt revisit some of these subject areas in more detailed form in future blogs, insight papers and elsewhere, but the subjects under consideration are certainly among the most prominent that come to mind when looking to the months ahead and give a sense of some of the larger thinking that is steering activity in the sustainability sector.

 

 

[1] Finding variously that: consumers reported making more environmentally friendly, ethical or sustainable purchases; sustainability is even more of a concern for consumers now; and that people feel tackling climate change should be prioritised in the post-Covid economic recovery.

[2] Consumers want to know that a product is, say, sourced from sustainable material, produced using a water efficient process, and that it’s carbon footprint has been considered, for example,

[3] Improved labelling and digital measures like RFID tags or QR codes, which let the consumer trace the journey of a product and make recycling them simpler, could all make improvements in this area

[4] With  researchers suggesting that human exposure to microplastics could lead to oxidative stressDNA damage and inflammation, and other health problems, with more recent studies considering the impact of breathing in microplastics as well as what we now know about their effects on the immune system

[i] Many have properties which make them resistant to grease, oil, water, and heat and they are most commonly associated with non-stick, stain- and water-resistant materials – including food and drinks packaging – as well as products used in cleaning and fighting fires.

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