“Throwaway Living: disposable items cut down household chores,” proclaims an article in the LIFE magazine August 1st 1955 edition. An image of a family happily tossing disposables up into the air accompanies the article. The post-war American family no longer had to ration to save resources; disposables had come to free them. The era of plastics had officially begun.
Sixty years later, plastics have creeped into every aspect of our lives: we wake up to a buzzing plastic phone, brush our teeth with a plastic toothbrush, drink water out of a plastic bottle, pay with a plastic credit card, carry groceries in a plastic bag, sip cocktails out of a plastic straw, light cigarettes with a plastic lighter, and sit on a plastic toilet seat. In the process, we never stopped to think if all this excess plastic, a petrochemical, would cause irreparable impacts on the environment.
In 2011 heads finally turned to take a deeper look at plastic pollution when the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) showcased plastic debris in the world’s oceans as one of the world’s emerging environmental issues (Kershaw et al., 2011). Since the late 60’s researchers evidenced the potential threats posed by plastics (Ryan, 2015). But it wasn’t until the media attention generated by Captain Charles Moore’s discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 that advocacy groups, academia, business, and policymakers, began dedicating time and resources to solving plastic pollution (Moore, Moore, Leecaster, & Weisberg, 2001; Ryan, 2015).
As we reach the close of 2015, we are at a crossroads: do we perpetuate the plastics era or move into a post-plastics life? Political clout and civil society interests have never matched so well with innovations and technologies that offer concrete, economically sustainable, solutions. Solutions can be grouped into two categories described below: increased efficiency in plastics recycling and large scale applications for post-consumer plastics.
An entrepreneur’s approach to plastics
At the global scale, less than 10% of plastics are recycled, compared to 90% of metals (Biddle, 2011). Global plastic production was estimated to reach 250 million tons in 2015 and is projected to grow about 4% per year (Merkl & Stutchey, 2015; PlasticsEurope, 2013). From Mike Biddle’s high-tech MBA Polymers to Gonzalo Muñoz’s low-tech TriCiclos model, entrepreneurs are testing different models for recuperating used plastics and increasing recycling efficiency.
Biddle’s system proposes an “urban-mining” technology that sorts mixed waste. At MBA Polymers, plastics are separated from other materials and sorted by type and quality via an industrialized mechanical processes. The end product is a post-consumer recycled plastic pellet that can be transformed into new products.
On the opposite side of the technology spectrum is the TriCiclos model; here sorting is in the hands of the consumers. TricCiclos 12-whole recycling-stations facilitates segregation of waste into each of the seven types of plastics. The TriCiclos guides who aid recycling-station users, assure that plastics are sorted correctly. Sorted plastics are then compacted, packaged, and sent directly to recycling plants for transformation.
Both models remove intermediary actors that exist in the traditional recycling value chain, lowering inefficiencies and risks of material impurities. The two models are examples of routes that recuperate high quality recyclable materials in larger volumes at a higher speed.
Large-scale applications for post-consumer plastics
Efficient collection the plastics is just half of the equation; the other half is creating a demand for the recycled material. At Davos 2015, for the launch of Project Main Stream, it was estimated that nearly $4 billion in value could be created from the better use of PET alone (WorldEconomicForum, 2015). Pioneers, such as Miniwiz and Interface carpets, are already profiting from a fully circular economy production models. From consumer products to building made of recycled plastics, Miniwiz is a company paving the
For the last decade, the Taiwan based company Miniwiz, has been experimenting with “turn[ing] post-consumer waste into high performance materials” (Miniwiz, 2015). They have made everything from iPhone cases to chairs to buildings, and now a fighter jet, out of recycled plastic and other post-consumer waste. Miniwiz has demonstrated the versatility materials recycling can offer and most of all, the feasibility of large-scale use of recycled plastics.
Interface carpets has been a pioneer in corporate sustainability since the early 1990s. Now having reached the seventh step of its “Mount Sustainability”: redesign commerce (InterfaceInc., 2015), Interface is creating new waste-sourced production cycles. The Net Effects program works with fishing communities to recuperate ghost nets from the ocean. The used nylon nets are than transformed into nylon fiber that is in turned used in the carpet manufacturing process.
Miniwiz and Interface are just two examples of companies setting the stage for what should be the 21st century’s industrial processes; processes where a large volume of waste materials are the food of a new industrial process.
Will we solve plastic pollution? Ridding the oceans of plastic waste is near impossible. What we can do is stop the flow of plastics to the ocean. For the first time in sixty years we have the evidence to prove the impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment and potentially human health, the voluntary policy mechanisms in place necessary to spur change, and the technologies to up-cycle plastic waste. The road to be taken now depends on the success of the models described above to break the status-quo and form a new circular economic system.
Author: Irene Hofmeijer, Chief Executive Officer, Life Out Of Plastic – L.O.O.P., Peru, and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper
Image: A man climbs on a pile of recyclable scrap materials at Xa Cau village, about 40 km (25 miles) south of Hanoi June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Kham
Biddle, M. (Writer). (2011). We can recycle plastic, TED.
InterfaceInc. (2015). Interface Sustainability. Retrieved November 24, 2015
Kershaw, P., Katsuhiko, S., Lee, S., Samseth, J., Woodring, D., & Smith, J. (2011). Plastic debris in the ocean. UNEP Year Book, 20-33.
Merkl, A., & Stutchey, M. (2015). Stemming the tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean: Ocean Conservancy & McKinsey.
Miniwiz. (2015). Our Mission. Retrieved November 22, 2015
Moore, C. J., Moore, S. L., Leecaster, M. K., & Weisberg, S. B. (2001). A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42(12), 1297-1300.
PlasticsEurope. (2013). Plastics -the Facts 2013: An analysis of European latest plastic production, demand and waste data. In PlasticsEurope (Ed.).
Ryan, P. (2015). A Brief History of Marine Litter Research. In M. Bergmann, L. Gutow & M. Klages (Eds.), Marine Anthropogenic Litter (pp. 1-25): Springer International Publishing.
TimeInc. (1955, 01 August). Throwaway Living: Disposable Items Cut Down Household Chores. LIFE, 30, 43-42.
World Economic Forum. (2015). Davos Makes Economic Case for Action on the Circular Economy. Retrieved November 22, 2015