The problem of marine plastics pollution—and plastics pollution in general—is well documented; by some estimates, up to 90% of debris in oceans is plastic of one form or another. But what to do about it? The Hong Kong-based NGO Ocean Recovery Alliance recently organized an event in Rio to look at solutions. Here director Doug Woodring talks through some of them.
Woodring says the issue in the post-consumer supply chain isn’t a lack of demand, but that it’s hard to get recycled plastic in re-usable forms. There is a drastic need for more machines like ones developed by MBA Polymers, a California company that electronically sorts 40 plastics types into feedstocks. "When technologies are employed, there are opportunities for societal gain from less garbage, and some financial gain from reselling the material. The question is getting these machines at scale," Woodring says. And getting the garbage. Many municipalities allow intermediaries to sort through the trash, pick out the valuable plastics, and sell the bulk overseas. That may reduce landfill, but it also means missing out on "the innovation and job creation potential from doing the processing at home." MBA Polymers makes money because it uses a tenth of the energy of conventional plastics production, and because its raw material is free.
A lot of plastic is simply unnecessary, particularly packaging. Woodring points to the example of Replenish, which is re-conceptualizing the spray-cleaner bottle. Instead of always using new bottles, Replenish sells a reusable one, along with cartridges of cleaner concentrate. It says it’s absurd to ship new bottles around the world when 99% of the volume is water, which we can just get from the tap. Why didn’t someone come up with an idea like Replenish before? "Personally, I think it was because people wanted to get these things on shelves as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and that they didn’t really think about the materials," says Woodring. "There’s also a marketing angle: filling up shelf space with bigger items means you can have a bigger presence, a bigger ad, a bigger logo. There are a lot of advertising and marketing issues related to plastic."
Woodring says the proliferation of biodegradable and compostable packaging has led to confusion among consumers about exactly how they should dispose of it after-use. For example, in San Francisco, where residents are required to separate recyclables and compostables, compostable packaging often ends up in the recycling bin, and vice versa. Woodring says this is a "teething problem," but serious nonetheless. Some companies are wary of taking recycled materials because they fear the stream has been compromised. The solution is better labeling, and, of course, better education.
Woodring says extended producer responsibility laws—where producers are responsible for post-use collection of plastics and other waste—are highly effective at reducing pollution. And several big companies, like Nestle, now support them. Up to $11.4 billion worth of recyclable packaging is currently wasted in the U.S., according to investor action group As You Sow. Woodring says countries like Taiwan, where as much as 90% of plastic is recycled, show the value of EPR (the U.S. has a 12.1% plastics recycling rate, according to a 2010 government report). Manufacturers are charged a small fee, which funds re-collection, and helps catalyze after-markets. Taiwan produces soccer jerseys, blankets, zippers, flower pots, and wigs from recycled plastics (not to mention whole buildings). "They are very progressive and see plastic as a resource, not as waste. That’s important."
In the developing world, post-consumer plastic bottles provide basic amenities, like lighting and school buildings. In the Philippines, the MyShelter Foundation's "1 Liter of Light" (Isang Litrong Liwanag) project uses plastic bottles as alternative lightbulbs. The bottle is filled with a mixture of water and chlorine, put through a hole in the roof, and light is refracted into the home. The device works for about five hours, and provides the equivalent of 60 watts. The same foundation is also developing school buildings, using bottles for the walls. "Maybe it’s not the huge scale of reuse that the world needs," says Woodring. "But it’s still a clever way to bring value to something that used to be a waste product."