Sure, CES gadgets are cool, but they’re all still made of plastic

It’s that point of 12 months once more, when the buyer electronics trade holds its flagship commerce present, CES. Drawing consideration from press and followers alike, the occasion is fertile floor for splashy product launches and hyped-up reveals. Whereas a surge in COVID-19 instances pushed some corporations to avoid physical attendance, many new merchandise are still slated to be revealed, albeit just about. Keen attendees will probably be greeted by the subsequent era of rollable TVs, folding phones, VR headsets, and electric vehicles. Wholly new applied sciences, similar to QLED 8K displays and over-the-air charging remotes may also make appearances. As a sci-fi fan myself, I’ll be the primary to confess these are actually thrilling merchandise.

Nonetheless, between the OLED screens and the metaverse rhetoric, the discerning attendee would possibly discover one thing acquainted. It’s behind the steering wheels of these electrical vehicles, it’s within the our bodies of the brand new smartphones, it’s even half of these new versatile screens. It, of course, is plastic. Plastic stays a serious half of our electronics, and for good purpose: It’s low-cost, sturdy, and remarkably adaptable. These options make it a pretty materials for producers seeking to win client enterprise.

As shoppers, we demand an increasing number of of our merchandise, pushing producers to create new and modern supplies. Producers incorporate these new supplies in a bid to seize market share, and the cycle repeats. Market-driven innovation is a magical factor. Nonetheless, as a result of the calls for we place on supplies are largely ergonomic (e.g., sturdiness, resilience) and fewer about sustainability (e.g., recyclable, nonpolluting), producers have little incentive to prioritize the environmental impression of sourcing their supplies. Because of this, we find yourself with superb and modern supplies, at oft-hidden environmental prices.


Absent a requirement for environmental issues, rational producers will merely go along with no matter is each financial and meets their necessities. Utilizing recycled plastic to create brand-new plastic is unlikely, due largely to low provide and competitively low-cost virgin materials.

That is unlucky as a result of it’s this virgin materials we must always actually be avoiding. New plastics don’t come from a very pure supply: They’re made by processing oil. Additionally, fossil fuels are low-cost, due largely to the massive subsidies they obtain. Because of this, plastic generated from oil will probably be arduous to beat on from a value perspective.

Fortunately, this isn’t the place the story ends. The identical results that obtained us right here can truly undo the prevalence of plastic. At the moment’s shoppers need manufacturers to contemplate the atmosphere of their merchandise, as a 71% increase in Google searches for sustainable items since 2016 illustrates. Price will still have a task to play in successful over shoppers, but on condition that oil is fleeting and sustainable merchandise are, by their very definition, perpetually reproducible, it’s affordable to anticipate {that a} sustainable product also can, finally, compete on worth.

An instance of this course of in motion is Samsung’s dedication to make use of 30 times more recycled plastics in its TVs and visible shows in 2022. Whereas it’s arduous to conclusively say that recycled plastics will probably be cheaper for the electronics producer, the buyer demand and sheer scale of Samsung’s enterprise could possibly be sufficient to tip the scales towards a less expensive and acutely aware product line.

Continued innovation will assist as properly, by forcing the value down and creating additional incentives for corporations like Samsung to remain on a sustainable observe. Bioplastics, which are plastics sourced from crops, stand to function one such innovation. Bioplastics received’t resolve for all forms of plastic pollution, but they may take away oil from the availability chain altogether. On condition that 99% of virgin plastic comes from petrochemical processes, this might be an excellent factor.

Modern startups like C-combinator are attempting to bridge this divide, exploring new methods to create cost-effective bioplastics. The enterprise harvests surplus algae from the Caribbean Sea and converts the plant into helpful base merchandise. Algae, which is a poisonous nuisance and an incredible pure carbon reducer, seems to be a great candidate for a carbon-negative plastic supply. The corporate is already utilizing the method to ship base supplies, like fake leather-based and emulsifiers, for the textiles and style trade. The graceful housing of your cellphone or headset may sooner or later come from these sources too.

One other firm, Heartland, is utilizing hemp fibers to create an ultra-durable bioplastic to be used in manufacturing. This materials may change plastic and rubber in all types of merchandise, from electronics to vehicles. In 2021, the corporate received the Continental Sustainable Material Innovation Challenge, and plans on rising its partnerships within the automotive trade over the approaching years. Heartland additionally markets its product to be used as an additive, which means it may change processes like steam cracking, the oil-intensive means of creating plastic chemical substances and components.


As shoppers, we have now the buying energy to push extra corporations to undertake these improvements, assist scale the bioplastic trade, and remove carbon in the process.

Plastic is sort of definitely right here to remain, but we are able to (and will) demand an environmentally superior model of it. I, for one, would like to see an algae pond at CES 2023. Now that might be a splashy launch.

Jonathan Azoff is a software program engineering chief with 15 years of expertise throughout a big selection of sectors, together with gaming, actual property, logistics, and fintech. He’s the inventor of Goat-2-Assembly and the first architect behind Omni.