Nature and Biodiversity

5 innovative ways we are tackling plastic waste

Globally, we produce around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to the UN.

Globally, we produce around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to the UN. Image: Unsplash/naja_bertolt_jensen

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Plastic Pollution

  • While plastic has become a vital part of modern life, plastic pollution is a threat to the planet and our health.
  • These innovations are helping to recycle more plastic, reduce microplastics in water and cut emissions.
  • Building a circular economy to reduce plastic waste is a key focus of the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership.

Look around your home – how many items are made of plastic? And what percentage of these items will be recycled when the time comes?

At today’s levels, you can expect fewer than one in 10 of them to be successfully recycled.

But there are efforts around the world to rethink how we can minimize plastic waste, and reduce the damage it can cause.

From removing microplastics in the water to the world’s biggest plastic sorting plant, here are five innovations that are reducing plastic waste around the world.

Global plastic production with projections, 1950 to 2060.
Global plastic production with projections, 1950 to 2060. Image: Our World in Data

1. The biggest plastic sorting plant just opened in Sweden

Sweden is pretty good at recycling, but there is room for improvement, says non-profit firm Sweden Plastic Recycling. Over half of all plastic packaging in Sweden isn’t sorted correctly, so it’s incinerated when it could have been recycled.

That is about to change after a sorting plant called Site Zero recently opened. The facility can sort up to 200,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year, more than any other facility in the world, and enough to deal with the whole country’s household plastic packaging waste.

Currently, four different types of plastic can be sorted at Site Zero, but in the future that number will go up to 12.

2. Modernizing waste supply chains in Indonesia

Indonesian firm Kibumi is a digital start-up company and World Economic Forum Uplink member on a mission to modernize the ways in which plastic waste is collected. The firm collaborates with a range of involved parties from waste collectors, brand owners, the packaging and recycling industry, and governments to create a complete value chain, from picking up waste to recycling and auditing.

In Indonesia, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws mean that packaging producers are responsible for the cost of recycling household packaging, including the cost of collection and recycling itself.

Kibumi can help these firms with their EPR obligations by using technology-led processes to help waste management become more connected and streamlined.

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3. Turning the tide on reusing packaging

In the packaging market, the reusable variety makes up less than 2%, because it is too expensive and inefficient compared to single-use packaging.

But Matt Kennedy, the CEO of UK start-up Again, wants to change the one-way supply system of single-use packaging by creating a circular alternative.

Again takes single-use packaging to the company’s CleanCell facilities, where they are cleaned and prepared for reuse. It won’t cost any more than single-use packaging and compared to traditional recycling methods, CleanCell uses 76% less water and 90% less energy.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

4. Removing microplastics from water

Microplastics are everywhere, from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to freshly fallen snow in the Antarctic.

They pose a risk to our health and our ecosystems, and yet four out of five of us had microplastics in our blood in recent tests.

But in Germany, Wasser 3.0 is looking to tackle plastic waste in water with a process that removes microplastics – and also micropollutants – from water without filters. It utilizes something called agglomeration fixation, which clumps the microplastics together on the surface of the water, before it is skimmed off the top.

The process is simple, scalable and produces no harmful by-products. And it works with seawater, drinking water, or wastewater.

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5. The challenges of India’s growing urban population

In India, growing urban populations are putting a strain on the country’s waste management system. Start-up TrashCon says the amount of rubbish in the country has doubled in 20 years, and will double again in another 20.

The company’s CEO, Nivedha RM, wants to change the way people think about polluting their environments and instead seek to reduce waste by sorting it, then recycling it.

One of its solutions is TrashBot, an automated waste segregation system that can separate any mix of waste, wet or dry, with over 90% efficiency. And the company has also come up with a method to convert discarded plastic waste into furniture boards, free from any resins or chemicals.

These compact ‘plug and play’ waste plants are operational today, running across over 20 sites around India, but could be scaled across the world, and do not require skilled labour to operate them.

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The global plastic waste challenge

The World Economic Forum’s Uplink and the Global Plastics Action Partnership are helping to provide a voice and support for these enterprises that are challenging the way we recycle plastic across the globe.

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The goal of the Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership is to accelerate the eradication of plastic pollution, and build a circular economy for plastics as a replacement for the single-use plastic model. It has over 400 member organizations and aims to bring together society, business and government to translate commitments into real action.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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