Rapacious consumption of single-use plastics has led to their widespread accumulation in the environment. Every minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the ocean; by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastics than fish by weight.

In our economy’s linear “make-take-dispose” model, the responsibility for disposing of plastics at the product’s end of life has fallen onto consumers and governments, and this system has not succeeded in ensuring responsible disposal. Out of the roughly 8.3 billion tons of plastic that have been produced since 1950, only 9% has been recycled, while 12% has been burned and 79% has ended up in the environment or landfills. As the severity of the plastics problem grows, and regulations banning single-use plastics pop up around the world, the private sector is exploring solutions to transform the system into a circular economy, in which companies are responsible for the products and associated packaging they create from cradle to grave.

These themes of responsibility and circularity emerged at the 2019 Patagonia Case Competition, which explored how Patagonia, and industry at large, can create and distribute packaging for food and apparel that is reusable, biodegradable, renewable or easily recyclable by 2025. Patagonia asked graduate teams around the world to develop innovative solutions to revolutionize packaging. “You have to know both the good and the bad about something to start changing it.” —Birgit Cameron, Managing Director, Patagonia Provisions

Patagonia has been recognized as one of the most environmentally conscious consumer brands, perpetually looking for ways to improve the status quo in each of the product areas it serves. And now the clothing and outdoor recreation company is participating in the food industry. Through Patagonia Provisions, the company is looking to find scalable solutions to our broken food system—to improve sourcing, supply chain equity and environmental stewardship, and to promote a system of regenerative organic agriculture. For example, Patagonia Provisions sells buffalo jerky because buffalo grazing techniques lead to grassland restoration, which improves soil quality, biodiversity, and C02 reduction. Still, customers have complained that none of the Provisions packaging is recyclable or compostable.

Patagonia has also moved toward producing sustainable apparel products, such as promoting reuse and repair over buying new, creating clothing from 100% organic cotton and using hemp as an ingredient. However, the company struggles with how to reduce or eliminate its use of plastic polybags when shipping products. A 2014 case study Patagonia conducted proved that polybags are necessary to protect goods.

With this prompt, the University of Michigan team got to work on developing solutions to the plastic packaging problem. The team comprised Chelsea Blau and Katherine Cunningham, MBA/MS students in the Erb Institute, Takunda Chazovachii, PhD, Chemistry, Erin Evke, PhD, Materials Science, Kartik Raju, MBA, Operations, and Brian Tobelmann, PhD, Materials Science.

Robert Strand (left), executive director of Berkeley’s Center for Responsible Business, moderates a fireside chat with Doug Freeman, Patagonia’s chief operating officer, at the 2019 Patagonia Case Competition. (Credit: Katherine Cunningham)

We developed a three-part solution:

  • an innovative biodegradable package for dry foods that could decompose by 90% within 90 days
  • a revolutionary method to separate and recycle complicated “retort” packaging
  • a combination of partnerships that would allow for widespread recycling of plastic apparel bags

Because many existing compostable plant-based plastics will biodegrade only in industrial composting facilities, our team wanted to come up with a package that could biodegrade in backyard compost conditions, to ensure that lack of access to municipal or industrial composting services would not hinder responsible disposal. The packaging that Patagonia Provisions’ salmon comes in is known as retort packaging. Retort packaging is a pouch made from flexible plastic and metal foils and is used as an alternative to traditional tin cans. Its properties made a compostable solution difficult, so our team developed a method that would allow these packages to be recycled. Through a process called ultrasonication, the package could be separated and sorted for recycling.

Through the process of ultrasonication, retort packaging can be separated and sorted for recycling. Because plastic polybags are not currently recyclable in recycling facilities, we suggested Patagonia lead a strategy of co-investment with Materials Recovery for the Future, an initiative that has proved that through optimizing existing technology in recycling facilities, flexible plastic packaging can soon be curbside recyclable. With this set of solutions, our team made it to the top 10, and we traveled to the University of Berkeley to pitch our ideas to set of Patagonia executives. Ultimately, we were awarded third place for our solution.

During the final presentations in Berkeley, our team noticed two streams of thought: is industry obligated to create products and packages that are easily recyclable, reusable or degradable? Or are consumers responsible for lessening their consumption and properly disposing of or reusing their packages? Many teams mentioned Loop as a solution that Patagonia should explore. Loop is a store where consumers can buy goods in reusable containers, shipped in a reusable bag. Once the products run out, the consumer sends back the reusable containers in the reusable shipping bag. This solution relies heavily on the consumer to both sign up for the program and use it properly.

The University of Michigan team placed third at the 2019 Patagonia Case Competition. “Leave things better than you found them. Leave no trace. That’s a lesson we can take to the business community.” —Doug Freeman, Chief Operating Officer, Patagonia”

As the industry continues to explore compostable packages, it must look closely at the implications for sustainability. Existing single-use, plant-based, compostable items raise issues such as the environmental impact associated with the feedstock used to make the item, as well as the lack of industrial composting infrastructure. A backyard compostable package could alleviate some of the negative externalities, but industry leaders will need to analyze potential solutions from a life-cycle perspective to ensure that innovation in the name of sustainability creates truly sustainable solutions.

Our experience at the 2019 Patagonia Case Competition underscored that a lasting positive impact will require energy from both consumers and industry leaders. Companies must start to shift away from single-use plastic packages that cannot be recycled or reused, and consumers need to do their part to reduce, reuse and recycle. If we are going to stop putting plastic waste into our ecosystems, we all need to take responsibility for our part of the problem.