Partnering with suppliers to create better recycled plastic
At Google, we have a company-level commitment to maximize the reuse of finite resources across our operations, products, and supply chains and to enable others to do the same.
“We want to end the linear ‘take, make, waste’ economic model by accelerating the transition to a circular economy,” says Michael Werner, lead for circular economy at Google. “This includes rethinking how we build our products and working to keep materials in use and in the economy longer.”
In August 2019, we announced that we would include recycled materials in 100% of our Made by Google products launching in 2022 and beyond, with a drive to maximize the amount of recycled content wherever possible.
One of our most promising initiatives is the development of a custom post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in partnership with our suppliers. Already incorporated across all Google Nest products launched in 2019, the recycled plastic emerged from a close collaboration among our materials scientists, design engineers, and suppliers to make the most of our resources and eliminate waste.
“At Google, we are a passionate team of materials science engineers who want to make a difference in how we design our hardware products,” says Adi Narayanan, product design manager of Materials Science & Engineering at Google. “We work with our suppliers to develop our recycled plastic, which is a great example of how we can partner across our value chain to drive real change.”
Solving the puzzle of making high-quality recycled plastic
Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s.1 Roughly 6.3 billion metric tons of this plastic have become waste. Of that 6.3 billion, only 9% has been recycled.
One reason for plastic’s low recycling rate is that it is much more difficult to recycle than glass, paper, or aluminum. Manufacturers use a wide variety of plastic, which must be carefully sorted by type for recycling. Combining different types of plastic renders them useless for manufacturing. What’s more, most recyclers lack the expensive infrastructure necessary to effectively recycle plastic.
Making high-quality recycled plastic is even harder because plastics degrade over time in function and aesthetics. Chemicals in household liquids and other materials can weaken the plastic in certain situations. Sunlight can also fade colors or crack plastic. Any recycled plastic that we use in Google products must be top quality, with no drop in performance compared with products made from virgin materials.
Safety also matters. Because plastic scrap may include contaminants, we have to make sure that the recycled plastic is safe for everyone—including our suppliers and customers.
Finding innovative solutions with our suppliers
Effective plastic recycling involves partnering with many different organizations across the supply chain. “To do what we’re trying to do, we need to work with top-tier raw material suppliers—and all the way up to their upstream supply chain—who are willing to invest on their end to produce top-quality material,” says Narayanan.
A few years ago, our materials scientists and sourcing team met with top-tier plastic manufacturers in the field, held technical discussions, and audited their recycling processes. After choosing our supplier partners, we worked in tandem to develop PCR plastic grades that could meet Google’s design and engineering specifications and quality expectations.
“In product development, our job is to ensure that all our devices, and the materials that go into them, meet our requirements and can be produced at scale,” says Larry Marvet, a Google product development and materials engineer. “At Google, we’re committed to promoting sustainability, and we pushed hard to show that this recycled plastic is capable and reliable.”
“We care deeply about our products’ performance in the hands of our customers,” Narayanan adds. “Products made from PCR plastic have to perform the same as earlier products made with virgin plastic.”
That required thinking creatively. “We had to ensure that their processes are capable of cleaning incoming scrap and converting it back into high-quality recycled plastic,” says Narayanan. “It’s a continuous process and requires all of our partners to keep innovating.”
This includes not just scientists and manufacturers but also the teams that will use these materials. After manufacturing, our materials engineers test all PCR plastic to make sure it meets our performance needs.
“The plastics have met all our extensive testing and validation processes,” Marvet says. “Google’s culture encourages this kind of resourcefulness, and I’m proud to be a part of this team.”
Building a more circular Google
We’re gradually incorporating PCR plastic into our product lines. One hundred percent of the Nest products launching in 2019 are built with recycled plastic. The Nest Temperature Sensor contains 65% PCR content in the enclosure. Our more recent Nest Wifi and Nest Mini products contain 45% and 35% PCR plastic, respectively, in their enclosures. Since 2018, we’ve shipped millions of Nest products with recycled plastic.
“This builds on many years of Google incorporating recycled plastic in the home space,” says Marvet. “For example, since 2015 Google has shipped Chromecast with 20% post-consumer recycled plastic in the enclosure.”
This is just one of many steps. In addition to incorporating PCR plastic in more Google products, we hope to inspire further innovation in plastic and other material recycling within Google and beyond. We’ll continue working with our suppliers to tackle this challenge.
As part of our drive to create a more circular economy, we’re also focused on designing our products to be safe for human and environmental systems because we can’t change the chemistry of products once we put them out into the world. In 2018, we published a Restricted Substances Specification to restrict the use of hazardous chemicals in all Google-branded products, manufacturing processes, and product packaging.
While we’ve made some great strides in the past few years, we know there’s more to do in creating a more circular Google. We look forward to continuing to partner with our suppliers to maximize product use and reuse, create more sustainable manufacturing processes, and design better, more sustainable products that incorporate as many recycled materials as possible.
1 Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made,” Science Advances, July 19, 2017.