Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Unlocking the Value in Plastic Pollution

Divers release a seal from entanglement in marine debris — NOAA (Source).

But relatively less attention is given to another major part of plastic pollution: the economic problems that lead to plastic pollution existing in the first place. This includes the amount of plastics being manufactured, the value of this material, the costs and benefits of how to dispose of them, etc. And diving into these details could bring some unique insight on how to tackle the plastic pollution problem as a whole!

The Basic Economics of Plastic Production

The first thing to note is that plastic production is a fairly modern phenomenon. We started producing plastics in the 1950s and since then, we now produce over 380 millions tonnes of plastic every year (Source). This massive increase in production makes sense due to the benefits plastics had over other materials at the time (often fabrics, metals, wood, etc.).

That said, the production of plastic isn’t magical. We have to give up some resources to gain these benefits. In particular, we have to use energy from fossil fuels to make plastics, release greenhouse gases from the production process, use water to make plastics, etc. And then, we also have to factor in how these resources are depleted when plastics are being transported, used, disposed of, etc.

As a very specific example, consider a shopping bag made of LDPE plastic (the common, thin-film, transparent plastic bags most people are used to) that gets produced, transported, used, and disposed of with an incinerator. Over its lifetime, that one plastic bag consumes 44 mL of water and 1.7 MJ of energy from fossil fuels (among other factors we have to give up to get the valuable material from the plastic bag) (Source).

What does this mean? It means plastic material has VALUE (down to EVERY plastic bag). We give up different resources to gain plastic materials. The value of this is expressed in the price we charge for plastic (which fluctuates a lot, although it is often between $0.75 USD to $1.10 USD per kilogram for LDPE (Source).

But now, consider what usually happens to this valuable material after it’s produced and used. 50% of plastics are just used once (Source) and the vast majority are currently burned or thrown away (Source). The material value of hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic is just LOST.

In fact, we can analyse the fate of all plastics produced between 1950 and 2015:

This diagram is simpler than it looks. It shows what happens to different amounts of plastic, as it goes from being produced (on the left) to being disposed of (on the right).

Here, we see that about 70% of plastics produced were only used once and 64% lost their material value from not being recycled (although incineration can recover a smaller amount of value from plastics). This represents hundreds of billions of dollars of value in plastic materials that is lost!

So How to Unlock the Value in Plastics?

The first thing to note is that solving the economic problem with plastic pollution isn’t entirely separate from solving its environmental problem. Both have to be done to address the problem in a scalable manner.

With that said, the most significant way to unlock the value in plastics would be to reduce the amount of plastic that is simply used once and then burned or thrown away (and the most feasible alternative is recycling). This is especially needed in developing countries, which typically face more challenges in raising recycling rates to unlock the value in plastics (Source).

One organisation that’s a useful example of an effective solution for this is Plastic Bank. They help launch recycling centres in developing countries where waste collectors gather materials including plastic (that would have otherwise been thrown away) and bring them to Plastic Bank for recycling. Plastic Bank can sell these recyclable materials to product manufacturers and use the revenue to pay waste collectors a higher wage.

Waste collectors are paid by weighing the amount of material collected to find its value (Source).

Here, we see the value from the material we use is UNLOCKED to improve the livelihoods of the waste collectors in developing countries (as well as to support Plastic Bank’s operations to increase recycling infrastructure).

It goes to show that solving the economic problem of lost material value can be a simple way to also address the environmental impact of plastic pollution! Overall, there is a HUGE opportunity to unlock the value of plastic material. So are we going to reclaim those billions of dollars or continue letting the value go to waste?

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Madhav Malhotra

Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/