Solutions for a World without the Waste Footprint


Plastic is an amazing material, with so many good uses, but its “after-life,” in the form of plastic pollution, might be creating one of the most vexing issues of our time.  Plastic has a half-life which far exceeds that of carbon, it is highly durable, complex in its make-up, widely diverse in its types, light weight, and hard to recover economically at scale.  These are big challenges, and as the world’s population grows, with an increasing consumption of goods that are made of, or packed within, plastic, the burden on our communities continues to increase.   This issue, however, also poses some large opportunities for the engaged leaders in business, innovation and policy who see this blight in our environment and waters continuing to grow.  Collectively, we need to encourage the new “Elon Musks” of the world to be part of this solution-needing challenge, regardless of the size of their company, or whether they operate in villages, towns, municipalities or nations.

Effective river trash capture system in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

 

Unfortunately, the ocean has been exploited for decades, as most of the world thought it was too big to be ruined.  Much of the planet’s “exploration funding” has been sent to space since the 1960’s, leaving us with less knowledge about the ocean around us, than what is in space.  As a result, the ocean has ended up as a recipient of our “ill-informed” assumption that the solution to pollution is dilution, and that there is enough out there in the “Big Blue” for everyone to take.   As our population has doubled since 1970, and consumption has escalated along with it, our resources have now become noticeably stressed, with almost all of our coastlines being impacted by plastic pollution – proof of our insufficient capacities on land to deal with recycling and waste management.

It feels like it is only in recent years that ocean health has really become more mainstream for the public, with plastic pollution being one of the most concerning, and solvable, topics, mainly because it is visible, and children can understand where it is, unlike that of carbon.  Even global companies which are not necessarily ocean-centric in their daily operations are now also becoming involved in the protection of our ocean’s resources.  With ocean acidification an enormous and highly difficult issue to combat, it is all the more important that we focus now on the topics that we can have a positive, shorter-term impact with, which include plastic pollution on the top of the list, but also the need for a big decrease in overfishing (“legal” or illegal), effluent reductions, reef restoration and natural coastal management, to name a few.  As Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “if the ocean is not healthy, we are not healthy.”

Plastic pollution is now one of the most discussed issues, as it creates long term impacts, with a complex set of challenges, many of which need to be solved at federal or state government levels, and on land.  If our town, cities and communities do not have a waste problem, then it will not make its way to our waters as easily, and this is where it is critical that companies become involved, as they make the products and materials that end up in the trash.  Two recent reports are relevant here: one of which was launched at the World Economic Forum last month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the “New Plastics Economy,” while the other was issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital, “Sea of Opportunity – Supply Chain Investment Opportunities to Address Marine Plastic Pollution.”

A boy uses a bamboo pole to catch floating trash from this effective river trash capture system in Manila, Philippines.

 

One of the most interesting quotes from the recent World Ocean Summit in Bali, was from Rob Walton of the Walton Foundation (Walmart), when he said “we are not entitled to exist as a company unless we work sustainably.”  This was in reference to their objective of selling only 100% sustainable seafood by 2020, but it also links to their other business operations, which should include plastic packaging and materials that are used across most of their products.  They still have a long way to go, but given their global operations, each move towards sustainable practices and materials makes a big ripple.  We need all of the world’s companies, big or small, to think in this way, so that their goal is to help benefit the communities they serve by following similar goals of sustainability which multinational companies like Walmart are trying to achieve.

Although the world is now more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change.  Waste is a localized issue, and access to feedstock (material) for recycling or energy creation is dependent upon collection and recovery systems which typically do not exist yet in efficient forms, even in developed cities.  The US recycling rate for all plastic is languishing below 15%. Collaboration, or “competition,” with the vested interests and pre-set contractors for waste hauling and landfill operators remains a key stumbling block in standardizing small to medium sized city resource recovery options.   There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the flow of our plasticized consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume, but which can also incentivize and reward companies, governments and the communities to participate over the long term.  This requires the minds, visions and acceptance by producers that they have a responsibility to the communities they serve, by taking care of the materials they disperse, even at the end of their initial life.  This is where our Plasticity Forums come into play, with two being held in the U.S. this April and May, as they bring together experts across the plastic spectrum to speak about innovations and solutions, for a world without the waste footprint.

This simple wooden fence trash capture system in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aids officials in removing 100-200kg of trash daily.

 

Education is great, and important, but unless the planet’s teachers are all taught about the complexities and importance of slowing plastic pollution, we will not get the scaled results that we need today.  We need to go into “crisis-mode,” thinking, with the great minds who can tap the vast opportunities that present themselves for community and environmental improvements.  The momentum to get the wheels turning is only just beginning, yet the urgency is not there yet, and this is where we need leaders and doers from our private sector to kick into gear.   The ocean, in the end, will be one of the big benefactors, both physically, and in mind-share, and this is something to get ready to celebrate.

Contributed by Doug Woodring

Founder: Ocean Recovery Alliance / Plasticity Forum / Global Alert Platform / Plastic Disclosure Project