You’ve undoubtedly heard: We as a species and the planet as a whole have an indisputable plastic challenge, on land and in the ocean. I know first hand from my trip to Clipperton, numerous beach cleanups, interviews with recycling centers, city officials, environmentalists as well as discussions with plastic manufacturers. There is consensus: There are too many plastics in the environment, much more being created and not enough being captured.
How do we solve this gargantuan plastic crisis? Ultimately, as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been developing and pointing out — the key is for everybody to move into a circular economy. Problem is you can’t get there overnight, there is no clear cut roadmap that works for all, and there are still all the plastics that are already here.
There is not a single solution as a magic wand that can rid all the plastic that we all managed to produce and put into the world, nor that can stop it from happening in the next couple of years. We are all in this together. The problem is too big and far-reaching, practically every single human in every single building contributes to it one way or another. In some circles, it is argued that the plastic problem is even more widespread than the carbon problem the world has been tackling. At least, it is said, there were some regions in the world that were not producing any carbon if they didn’t have the utilities and technology. Plastics are there in the hands of the poorest of the countries and villagers, to the most affluent presidents and royalty. It’s found in the deepest point of the ocean, the highest point on the planet, in the Saharan desert, and everywhere in between. It is definitely both an item with purpose and a problem that globally connects every single one of us.
Is it all doom and gloom though? Absolutely not. The world has faced many other challenges in history even before we had access to the technologies and knowledge we have today. Once we come together and collaborate there is practically nothing to stop us. This series is my way to cover and share the information I’ve been so privileged to learn in the last 18 months or so about both the realities of plastic and the solutions that many players in the world are working to develop. Though the problem is big — the attempts, intentions, and solutions everybody’s coming up with are ever so hopeful.
Here’s an attempt to aggregate the top areas that industries and various stakeholders around the world are coming together to make a dent in the plastic problem — and the very first step comes with every country and player measuring and monitoring their plastic production, consumption, and waste. And the last section highlights the impact of collaboration with examples on types of partnerships, alliances, and groups that exist today, are being formed, and are still needed in the near future. Each section heading below is a link to more detail on each topic with examples of companies and stakeholders who are focused on developing a solution in that area.
Let’s start with an emphasis on the need to measure the problem and our contributions to it. With measures, we can figure out the scale, how much we each contribute, what we can readily reduce, determine if our actions are producing results, and then identify what more we can do with some effort.
Measuring is a category of its own. It applies to all players across the board. It’s not a solution but a necessary first-step to making a difference.
“You can change what you measure.” Prior to learning how to measure our blood glucose we didn’t know about diabetes or how sugar and carb intake impact our health. Imagine every country, every city, manufacturer, company, building, apartment, and home measuring their waste — just like any other utility. There is an electric meter — why not a waste meter? From personal experience, I realized the amount of waste I was generating in my own apartment when I removed the trash can. I lived without a trash can for over a year — then on popular demand from my guests, I added one and only need to empty it once a month for the “unexpected” mostly. This was not an effort to live “zero-waste” but mind my waste. More on that later.
The below seven sections, as they become links to their corresponding article, each provides more detail on its relative topic — potential ways that various players across the globe can act and collaborate to transform the role of plastics in the world. There is not a single answer, and there is not a single solution that is not required. This is a crisis we all win when we work together, and act quickly to make the kind of impact our planet and ocean need. The current vision is to keep each of these articles as a rolling tally on efforts made across the world.
All of them are required, none of them alone are enough.
1 — Invest in Product and Design Innovations — Innovation is number one because it includes action from practically every person, not just the inventors and designers out there — though they obviously play a big part. We need to step up our game and commitments to increase collective investments in the number of innovative products and methods that reduce the amount of raw plastic. Alternative products such as steel, bamboo, avocado pits are being developed and considered. Innovative design also means doing things a little differently — instead of single-use packaging, there are attempts to use “return” systems just like the old milk bottles. This category also includes innovation to consumption habits — some innovators are working to change our idea of “ownership” and invest more in shareable technologies and products.
2 — Reduce the amount of raw plastic produced — Between 1950 and 2015 the world went from producing 8Million Metric Tons (MMT) to 380mmts and topped off 2018 at 415mmts. The total production rate in 1950 is now equal to just the annual leakage into the ocean — that’s equal to the weight of two Empire State Buildings per month, 24 per year. The number is so large and the million metric ton unit is so foreign to 99.9% of the population that nobody can really comprehend what this means. Everybody has the idea that “somebody has an eye on it.” In reality, they don’t. The industries are trying to do their jobs and grow the industry and production on an annual basis per stakeholder demands. What can be effective is a cap on the amount of raw plastics produced in a year. Another potential approach is to incentivize the use of recycled content for manufacturers and for customers to demand recycled products. Whether your vacuum cleaner, dashboard, outdoor furniture etc. are made of recycled plastic doesn’t have an impact on the quality of the product.
3 — Tax for Landfills and manufacturing single-use plastic packaging — Many countries and states already have taxes for creating plastic waste — similar to the carbon tax. While taxing landfills incentivizes cities and waste management to reduce the amount of plastic that is being dumped and lost forever, taxing on the production side incentivizes manufacturers to use less plastic for unnecessary packaging. At the same time, there can be tax-exemptions for using more recycled content in manufacturing, or lower consumer taxes when buying such products.
4 — Standardize packaging and other plastic products — one of the biggest challenges for recycling is the amount of dye, chemicals, stickers, labels etc. that are used on each plastic product are different even from the same manufacturer. This “freedom” makes it almost impossible to recycle some items (even if they are #1, 2 or 5) as they contaminate and reduce the quality of the end recycled material. While this focus area is also closely related to #1 on Product Innovations the packaging and manufacturing industry together with governments can take the accountability to ensure proper processes to incorporate new materials in their products.
5 — Invest in Local Recycling Infrastructure Globally — while it is easy for the west to point the finger to the Top 5 countries who dump plastic into the ocean that is only half the story. It’s the reason why, when China (one of the Top 5), shut its doors to western “recycling materials” the West woke up to an industrial shock never before experienced. The West does NOT have the capacity and capability to recycle their own recyclables — the bandaid was sending it over to China for them to deal with it — when China said “enough” the developed countries still have no idea how to handle it. It even had a bigger impact because the “recycling centers” that we think recycle material are mostly just sorters and balers selling to China or other countries. So when they stopped taking the materials, the local, misleadingly named, recycling centers started going out of business. Although this is mostly interpreted as a “bad” thing it also creates the biggest, most obvious and immediate business opportunities.
6 — Invest in CLEAN waste-to-energy systems — For decades, environmentalists have always fought against incineration. Rightfully so, as incineration creates much-unwanted carbon and other toxic gases that harm air quality and contribute to global warming. In recent years the industry is seeing much progress and innovations in waste-to-energy technologies. Do they need to be, and most importantly, can they be part of a “green” future?
7- Invest in waste capture technologies — Whether on land, near shore, open ocean or seabed the world has a LOT of plastic waste it needs to deal with that is already here. Given this situation, there is much room to develop technologies to capture plastics and turn them into a resource while cleaning up the environment. From mining landfills to beach-cleanups, and investing in nearshore solutions to picking up the waste at depths, all are important. Every bit of the plastic that is left in the environment releases toxins into our air and water.
And last but not least — create collaborations! Numerous types of organizations are now being formed quickly by powerful players.
Next is — Ways to Invest in Innovative Product Design.