Plastic pollution provides untapped business potential

The manufacturing of alternatives to plastic products could be the next frontier in the cleantech sector.

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Solving the problem of plastic pollution offers “terrific innovation opportunity,” said Daniella Russo, founder of Think Beyond Plastic, a business accelerator program for start-ups that seek to reduce plastic use. Russo spoke at the Oregon BEST FEST cleantech conference in Portland Friday.

The $500 billion market for single-use and disposable plastic products is ripe for “disruption and alternatives,” said Russo, who added she is “blown away” by the dearth of companies that make alternatives to plastic products.

Plastic has become an essential staple of life since its introduction in the 1950s. But its environmental impact is enormous as it does not biodegrade and contains toxins that harm human health.

Oregon’s paper and pulp industry is well placed to benefit from the increased interest in reducing plastic pollution. Russo said the region’s paper manufacturing sector has potential to manufacture non-plastic alternatives.

“The Pacific Northwest is known for its agriculture and paper business. There are new ways to repurpose pulp as an alternative,” said Russo.

Plastic production is accelerating. The production of plastics grew to 311 million tonnes in 2014, from 15 million tonnes in 1964, and is expected to double again in the next 20 years, according to a recent World Economic Forum report.

From the toxic chemicals that are added to plastics for food and beverage items to the harmful particulate matter that is released when plastic is incinerated, the ubiquitous product is “toxic in all stages of its existence,” said Russo.

Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean. Under business-as-usual conditions, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, the World Economic Forum report finds.

Russo’s incubator for technologies and businesses that strive to solve plastic pollution just launched a 2016 accelerator for technologies that support non-toxic biodegradable materials and reusable consumer products.