Research and analysis

Navigating Plastic Alternatives In a Circular Economy

As part of our Advancing Circular Systems for Plastics & Packaging Initiative, Closed Loop Partners published Navigating Plastic Alternatives in a Circular Economy to demystify the rapidly growing and evolving landscape of plastic alternatives, with a focus on bio-based plastics, biopolymers and compostable products and packaging.

This work unpacks the opportunities and challenges within the industry’s move toward these alternative materials, considering sustainable sourcing of feedstocks and end-of-life recovery pathways.

With 11 million metric tons of plastic waste entering our oceans every year, the proliferation of single-use plastics across the globe has reached a tipping point. Market pressures and regulations are spurring a rapid and, at times, haphazard shift away from petroleum-based, single-use plastics bound for landfill.

Many companies are exploring bio-based plastics, biopolymers and compostable alternatives to align their products and packaging with waste reduction and climate impact goals, after pursuing strategies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. Yet with new materials already outpacing the capacity of our existing recovery infrastructure, there is a critical need to address the misalignment between production and end-of-life to ensure that compostable packaging does not end up in landfill.

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Our Approach

We apply a holistic circular economy framework to assess these new materials, grounded in the ecosystem of our funds––spanning venture capital to private equity––and the reach of our Center for the Circular Economy.

We situate biopolymers and compostable alternatives within the broader context of a number of plastic waste mitigation strategies, understanding that no one silver bullet solution can address the global plastics waste challenge. Redesigning, reusing, repairing, recycling and composting materials are all complementary pieces of a broader puzzle. The materiality of products and packaging will always need to be evaluated according to their specific––against their social, environmental and economic tradeoffs––to ensure materials are kept in circulation at their highest value and best use case for as long as possible.

What We Learned

In this webinar, Kate Daly, Head of the Center for the Circular Economy, and Hannah Friedman, Investment Associate and Biopolymer Research Lead, at Closed Loop Partners dig into the research, answering questions and providing an essential foundation for innovators, brands and investors to evaluate compostable packaging.

Key Findings

Finding 1: Identify bio-based materials that use waste as a feedstock

Finding 2: Design products and packaging that are clearly intended to be recyclable or processed in organics infrastructure

Finding 3: Deploy compostable packaging to divert food scraps toward organics processing and to solve for product formats that are not successfully recycled today

Finding 4: Select materials and products that are certified compostable by industry- accepted third-parties

Finding 5: Reserve marine and soil degradable certifications for specific use-cases

Finding 6: Avoid landfills and leakage to waterways by designing for recapture within organics processing infrastructure

Call to Action

As biopolymers continue to grow their market share, it is critical that the necessary investments are made to scale the organics processing infrastructure to recover the materials after use, and that brands collaborate and consider the complexities of biopolymers to ensure that these new materials bring value across the system. More research is needed to rigorously test that materials add value as they flow through their end-of-life recovery pathways and do not create unintended consequences along the way. We call for these investments, collaborations and testing, alongside continued innovation and iteration, to ensure that the future of plastic alternatives might look even brighter.