The tide of devastation from single-use plastics polluting our oceans is now at an all-time high. Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic are added to our oceans every day. Long ago, islands of plastic debris started forming in our oceans. Today, one of them is the size of Texas.
This pollution is killing our oceans by killing the wildlife in them. One in three leatherback sea turtles has been found with plastic in their stomachs. According to one source, sea turtles caught around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch “can have up to 74% (by dry weight) of their diets composed of ocean plastics.” For those of us who eat fish, at least some of this plastic finds its way into our own diets.
This problem is everyone’s problem. Fortunately, the world is starting to take action. Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that “Canada will ban harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 in a bid to reduce ocean waste.”
Canada is hardly alone. The European Union and other nations passed similar legislation last year. This is encouraging. Our most realistic hope of addressing this problem lies in collective action at national and international scales.
The role of the supply chain
Ultimately, any initiative to address this problem will have much to do with managing the supply chain for plastic goods.
There are several options:
- Design products and packaging material that are more ecologically friendly and bio-degradable.
- Drive a circular economy, where the emphasis is on the re-use and recycling of packaging materials and products at the end of their life, instead of waste at the end of a linear supply chain process.
- Deliver products in a different way to promote the use of reusable containers.
Focus on plastic bottles
While plastic waste comes in all forms, one particular culprit is the disposable plastic water bottle. An inspiration for how to address our current challenges with these water bottles come from British breweries hundreds of years ago. Back then, brewers were presented with the challenge of distributing perishable beer across the country at a time when the costs of distribution were quite high.
It’s hard to believe, but Birmingham in the West Midlands has more canals than Venice. These canals were used to transport reusable barrels across the country using minimal energy. Every barrel was recycled. Every effort was made to distribute the product economically and retain its quality.
New horizons in distribution
By being similarly innovative with our distribution efforts for water, today’s supply chain can play a critical role in helping to minimize plastic pollution in our oceans. It can also create new opportunities for meeting new demand. Here are just a few ideas:
- Water dispensing machines: Instead of buying bottles of water, stores can offer water dispensing machines. Basically a glorified tap, such machines can help draw foot traffic with stores offering free fill-ups. Or stores can launch new business models and charge by use. Companies that make the machines, moreover, can add sensors that monitor usage, thus creating new opportunities for service and repair.
- Water filtration equipment and consumer goods: From Brita-style water jugs to filters that are built into the refrigerator, water filtration in the home is hardly something new. However, with increased awareness of plastic waste due to water bottles, we could see a resurgence in their popularity. New “must-have” filtration solutions will create new demand that manufacturers can tap.
- Reusable, personalized water bottles: In gyms everywhere, people personalize their water bottles with stickers and other identifying markings. Like bumper stickers on a car or a laptop computer, such personalization can become quite trendy – leading to new opportunities for companies to meet the new demand.
- Creative recycling: A great example is Mohawk Industries, which is making carpets from recycled plastic bottles – lots of them. Mohawk says that it “recycles 3 billion plastic bottles per year (20% of all bottles in the domestic post-consumer market).” On the other end of the supply chain, it “recycles carpet fiber into nylon and polypropylene pellets for the automotive parts and furniture industries.”
- Clean-up opportunities: As communities clean up waterways, there will be a growing need for dredging and clean-up operations. This will require new specialized machines, transportation, shipment, and repair. This will be a new opportunity for industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers.
- 3D printing: Otherwise known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing uses plastic dust as a base material, which can then be pressed into almost anything imaginable. The good thing about this approach is that the products produced can be returned to the plastic dust from which they were formed to create new products. This is the circular economy at work!
The change ahead
As societies move forward with regulations to combat plastic pollution, change will be the inevitable result. For example, companies can expect greater compliance burdens to demonstrate sustainable operations. This will require new systems to track what happens in the supply chain.
Retail operations will change, too. With a focus on water refills and reusable containers, the financial and placement situation may change, requiring new slotting structures from retail software.
We know that consumers increasingly want the companies they buy from to be sustainable. This creates an opportunity for forward-thinking companies to become sustainability leaders and industry change agents.
At SAP, we’re seizing this opportunity ourselves. We’re also helping our customers do the same with supply chain and logistics software that helps companies run better. For more information, visit SAP Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
To learn more on how to drive sustainable supply chain processes, download the IDC report “Leveraging your intelligent digital supply chain.“