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Dell, Philips, Timberland Working Out Kinks in Circular Plastics Strategies

Image credit: UN Environment/Shawn Heinrichs

Capturing littered plastic – whether in the oceans, on beaches or from city streets – and transforming it into new products has become something of a creative marketing drive, with brand owners investing in high-profile launches to demonstrate leadership in this space: P&G’s beach plastic shampoo bottle and the Timberland X Thread collection are just two recent examples.

Increasing the amount of recycled plastics in products – particularly consumer goods – doesn’t come without its challenges, however. The variety of polymer types out there, and the different raw material specifications required by manufacturers, can present a headache for plastic reprocessors when it comes to refining and supplying the right type of recycled plastics that brand owners need.

For fast-moving consumer goods such as apparel, sourcing the required quantities and qualities to fit in with new product line launch timelines adds to these pressures. Timberland says it typically builds in a minimum 18-month window in advance of product launches to secure the correct materials.

“We have approved vendors that create materials that align with our creative direction and sustainability guidelines, which get updated and published twice a year. If a designer selects a product that is not made from sustainable materials and we need to redevelop it to meet our guidelines, that’s when we can run into issues with timelines,” says Timberland’s sustainability director, Colleen Vien, told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview. “For example, sometimes the correct yarn size needed to match a requested sample is not always available. Our latest effort to improve this issue was hosting a Sustainable Materials Summit in our China office. This puts emphasis on the need to manufacture materials that will get selected from the outset for the correct product.”

Vien says the company is gearing up to launch more Timberland X Thread products next Spring and is looking to scale up its use of recycled polyester, as well as investigate new types of materials including bio-plastics and post-consumer recycled nylon from abandoned fishing nets.

Asked how suppliers – particularly smaller startup enterprises – can work with Timberland to improve the availability and quality of recycled plastics that it needs, Vien replied: “From the outset, one of the most important discussions we had with Thread was about being transparent regarding expectations, and ensuring quality and volume of production.

“Timberland has worked with many startups over the years, where we generated strong consumer support, which in turn increased demand for volume of material,” she added. “This sometimes created challenges when the startup supplier couldn’t fulfill the need. We know the importance of taking time when needed and facilitating discussions about expectations and volume of production with our partners.”

Philips is another company looking to increase the amount of recycled plastic it uses in its consumer products. By 2020, it aims to ensure that 15 percent of its total revenue is derived from circular initiatives – part of which will be through specifying that more of its products contain at least 30 percent recycled plastics.

Philips uses a step-by-step process to introduce more recycled plastic into its product range. This includes focusing on commonly used polymers, identifying and approaching suppliers, and determining critical product specifications. The company starts by using recycled plastics in existing products in order to learn from the process before moving onto designing these products from scratch for recycled plastics.

Philip’s sustainability director, Eelco Smit, says this methodology has helped accelerate scale-up: “If we look at our floor care range, before we had the process it took on average about two years to implement – to look for the material, do all the testing and get it into production. Now we’ve refined this process, we’re down to nine months.”

He added that the methodology enables a “first time right” approach when it comes to production, which “saves us huge amounts of time and money.”

Smit says a key challenge going forward is to resolve some of the aesthetic challenges of using recycled plastics in consumer goods, such as color and finish limitation. For example, hard and bright colors are very hard to achieve – this includes ‘high gloss deep black,’ which is a popular color for many electrical products. One issue is the impurities that remain in reprocessed plastics.

“If you melt a plastic for reuse, you need a filter to remove those particles – there’s room for improvement there. Also, we may need greater experimentation with recycled-virgin plastic blends to get higher grades of plastic … to get to that next level of visual appearance,” Smit said. “We will have to work with our recyclers to improve the quality of the material, on the material itself or on the molding technology. In both areas, there’s still room for innovation to get those quality standards that we need.”

Increasingly, brand owners are looking to develop closed-loop solutions that enable them to target specific plastics for takeback. Dell’s Reconnect Program is one such example – the e-waste that is collected is sent to Wistron GreenTech, an electronics recycler with which Dell has partnered. Wistron’s integrated reprocessing and refining abilities has helped streamline the logistics of takeback for Dell; it’s a model that the IT firm would like to replicate.

“We want to expand on closed-loop recycled plastics,” says Dell’s EMEA director of product compliance engineering and environmental affairs, Markus Stutz. “We also think there’s opportunity to identify new streams for open-loop recycled plastic.”

In 2016, Dell used 16.1 million pounds of recycled materials in total – around 25 jumbo jets of material by weight. Of this, roughly a third was sourced from its closed-loop processes. Building on this work may require more materials innovation going forward.

“What we need in the IT industry is high-value technical plastics,” Stutz says. “[But] the input stream coming back from consumers of these technical plastics is relatively low volume.”


Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk

[Read more about Maxine Perella]