Waste plastic is a big problem. It has major implications for the health of humans, animals and sea creatures alike. It’s a very visible pollution issue, and it creates a major headache, image-wise, for an otherwise useful, durable, versatile and downright irreplaceable material. So, what to do about it?
Many smart people are working full-time on this challenge. Some of them gathered recently in Portugal to have what they called “a big discussion about the future of plastic.” The meeting – called The Plasticity Forum, held June 8-9 in the coastal city of Cascais, near Lisbon – took a long, hard look at many of the broader aspects related to plastics waste recovery, reuse and management.
The event’s founder, Doug Woodring, also is co-founder of the Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance, one of the first Non-Governmental Organizations to be working with both the United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans on their respective ocean programs.
Woodring launched Plasticity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, and since has held it annually in Hong Kong, New York City and now Cascais. In Portugal, about 25 presenters from around the world addressed a gathering of more than 80 business and industry officials, sustainability experts, plastic producers and users, innovators and government representatives to discuss potential solutions to the growing plastic problem facing our land and marine environments. [Full disclosure: This reporter served as emcee for the event in Portugal.]
Some recent research helped to frame the discussions that took place. Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering, led a team of researchers that completed the most comprehensive study yet about the amount of plastics finding their way into the waterways of the world – and the results were pretty scary. Published in the journal Science this past February, this was the team’s summary:
“By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.”
They defined “mismanaged waste” as material that is either littered or inadequately disposed. Such waste eventually could enter the ocean via inland waterways, wastewater outflows, and transport by wind or tides. Using 2010 data, the study looked at coastal countries and attempted to estimate the total amount of mismanaged plastic waste for those living within 50 km, or about 30 miles, of a coastline.
This study indicated that countries in Asia made up the top six offenders. Some may question the metrics and findings, but it’s clear this is an issue for the entire planet.
Nearly all at Plasticity likely would describe themselves as pro-environment, but many also were practical business people who recognize the value of plastics as a material. Their goal is not to ban or bash, but to find viable ways to minimize plastics’ footprint on the planet, while also extracting maximum value from the material – not only during but also after its initial, functional life.
Plasticity keynote speaker Dr. Mike Biddle, founder of durable-goods recycler MBA Polymers and CEO of Material Solutions, a San Francisco-based adviser to clean-tech companies, noted: “Substituting a variety of plastics packaging with non-plastics alternative would increase the amount of packaging generated annually in the U.S. by 55 million tons.” Biddle, a former Dow Chemical research manager and the only person to have spoken at all four Plasticity conferences to date, told attendees: “This means that plastics help to significantly reduce packaging weight, which results in more product shipped with less packaging, fewer trucks on the road, less energy used, less greenhouse gas emissions and less material to recover or recycle.”
As a way forward, he urges responsible resource management, meaning:
- Use biodegradable plastics for products that are not likely to be collected;
- Collect more of the waste products;
- Recycle more of those materials; and
- Revert to energy recovery and/or waste-to-fuel conversion for what cannot be recycled.
To that end, this year’s event featured a presentation on a new plastics-to-fuel report. A joint effort between the Ocean Recovery Alliance and the American Chemistry Council, the study aims to help unlock the economic potential for such technologies. It also includes a functional financial model that can be used to estimate the appropriate technologies for a given jurisdiction, and feedstock stream of plastic material that is available within that community.
Here are some of the other developments and initiatives that were discussed at this year’s Plasticity Forum:
- Donald Thomson, president and founder of The Center for Regenerative Design & Collaboration in Costa Rica, told how his group specifically designed and patented their Agua plastic water bottles to be upscaled into long-term assets for use on buildings as roof tiles in developing communities.
- Bradley La Force, founder and CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based ByFusion Ltd., explained how his firm has developed a product – the RePlast Brick – from commingled, difficult-to-recycle plastic waste material that yields a product stronger than cement and which can be used in building construction. The “factories” used to produce these bricks are self-contained, completely mobile, and can ship quickly with their own power source to anywhere in the world.
- Several Plasticity participant companies announced they will jointly conduct a new Net Benefit Analysis report as a follow-on to the report published last June on “Valuing Plastic” (note: free registration and login required to access report). Participants include the Ocean Recovery Alliance, Trucost plc, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the Hong Kong-based Plastic Disclosure Project. The report will show the broad economic, social and financial impacts of making decisions related to waste reduction, new design, material use, packaging changes and use of increased recycled content.
- Ryan Hunt, chief technology officer and co-founder of Algix LLC, provided an update on his Meridian, Miss.-based firm’s efforts to produce plastic from algae. Algix operates and supports sustainable fish farms for the combined production of fresh fish and algae biomass, and then converts the algae into a low-cost, bio-based feedstock for the renewable plastics industry.
The two-day event featured many discussions about scaling up certain practices (collection, sorting, recycling, etc.) for commercial viability, and about the steps needed to create a circular economy. To access downloadable slide presentations from most of the presenters at this year’s event, click here.
And for those really interested, here are videos of the live-streamed presentations from Plasticity Portugal:
June 8 morning presentations (2:20 hours)
June 8 afternoon presentations (4 hours, though content starts only at the 25-minute mark)
June 9 presentations (6:39 hours, content with audio starts at the 5:05 mark)
Additional images and information about Liina Klauss’s stunning art installation, “The Circle,” can be found here.
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