It’s that time of year again, when the consumer electronics industry holds its flagship trade show, CES. Drawing attention from press and fans alike, the event is fertile ground for splashy product launches and hyped-up reveals. While a surge in COVID-19 cases pushed some companies to avoid physical attendance, many new products are still slated to be revealed, albeit virtually. Eager attendees will be greeted by the next generation of rollable TVs, folding phones, VR headsets, and electric vehicles. Wholly new technologies, such as QLED 8K displays and over-the-air charging remotes will also make appearances. As a sci-fi fan myself, I’ll be the first to admit these are truly exciting products.
However, between the OLED screens and the metaverse rhetoric, the discerning attendee might notice something familiar. It’s behind the steering wheels of those electric cars, it’s in the bodies of the new smartphones, it’s even part of those new flexible screens. It, of course, is plastic. Plastic remains a major part of our electronics, and for good reason: It’s cheap, strong, and remarkably adaptable. These features make it an attractive material for manufacturers looking to win consumer business.
As consumers, we demand more and more of our products, pushing manufacturers to create new and innovative materials. Manufacturers incorporate these new materials in a bid to capture market share, and the cycle repeats. Market-driven innovation is a magical thing. However, because the demands we place on materials are largely ergonomic (e.g., durability, resilience) and less about sustainability (e.g., recyclable, nonpolluting), manufacturers have little incentive to prioritize the environmental impact of sourcing their materials. As a result, we end up with amazing and innovative materials, at oft-hidden environmental costs.
Absent a demand for environmental considerations, rational manufacturers will simply go with whatever is both economic and meets their requirements. Using recycled plastic to create brand-new plastic is unlikely, due in large part to low supply and competitively cheap virgin material.
This is unfortunate because it’s this virgin material we should really be avoiding. New plastics don’t come from a particularly natural source: They’re made by processing oil. Also, fossil fuels are cheap, due in large part to the massive subsidies they receive. As a result, plastic generated from oil will be hard to beat on from a cost perspective.
Thankfully, this isn’t where the story ends. The same effects that got us here can actually undo the prevalence of plastic. Today’s consumers want brands to consider the environment in their products, as a 71% increase in Google searches for sustainable goods since 2016 illustrates. Cost will still have a role to play in winning over consumers, but given that oil is fleeting and sustainable products are, by their very definition, perpetually reproducible, it’s reasonable to expect that a sustainable product can also, eventually, compete on price.
An example of this process in action is Samsung’s commitment to use 30 times more recycled plastics in its TVs and visual displays in 2022. While it’s hard to conclusively say that recycled plastics will be cheaper for the electronics manufacturer, the consumer demand and sheer scale of Samsung’s business could be enough to tip the scales toward a more cost-effective and conscious product line.
Continued innovation will help as well, by forcing the price down and creating further incentives for companies like Samsung to stay on a sustainable track. Bioplastics, which are plastics sourced from plants, stand to serve as one such innovation. Bioplastics won’t solve for all forms of plastic pollution, but they could remove oil from the supply chain altogether. Given that 99% of virgin plastic comes from petrochemical processes, this would be a very good thing.
Innovative startups like C-combinator are trying to bridge this divide, exploring new ways to create cost-effective bioplastics. The business harvests surplus algae from the Caribbean Sea and converts the plant into useful base products. Algae, which is a toxic nuisance and a great natural carbon reducer, turns out to be an ideal candidate for a carbon-negative plastic source. The company is already using the process to deliver base materials, like faux leather and emulsifiers, for the textiles and fashion industry. The smooth housing of your phone or headset could one day come from these sources too.
Another company, Heartland, is using hemp fibers to create an ultra-durable bioplastic for use in manufacturing. This material could replace plastic and rubber in all sorts of products, from electronics to automobiles. In 2021, the company won the Continental Sustainable Material Innovation Challenge, and plans on growing its partnerships in the automotive industry over the coming years. Heartland also markets its product for use as an additive, meaning it could replace processes like steam cracking, the oil-intensive means of creating plastic chemicals and additives.
As consumers, we have the purchasing power to push more companies to adopt these innovations, help scale the bioplastic industry, and remove carbon in the process.
Plastic is almost certainly here to stay, but we can (and should) demand an environmentally superior version of it. I, for one, would love to see an algae pond at CES 2023. Now that would be a splashy launch.
Jonathan Azoff is a software engineering leader with 15 years of experience across a wide array of sectors, including gaming, real estate, logistics, and fintech. He’s the inventor of Goat-2-Meeting and the primary architect behind Omni.