Jan 24, 2019

Further Steps to Solve the Plastics Problem

Eight million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans every year. What steps are needed to solve the plastics problem?

Eight million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans every year. Previous posts in this series detail how we got to this point and work underway to address the problem. Here we discuss critical further steps needed to solve the plastics problem.

The previous post outlined efforts undertaken by NGOs, private companies, and governments to reduce the massive flow of plastics into our oceans. This work is promising, but it is also insufficient. Detailed here are several further steps needed to mitigating this acute and global problem.

Build infrastructure

Plastics in our oceans are only a problem because plastic gets to our oceans in the first place. In countries with the highest levels of pollution, neighborhoods often have no waste collection services and so residents are forced to burn their waste, bury it, or just ditch it in a nearby stream. Even where there is collection, the vehicles involved—sometimes a hand-pulled cart or open truck—litter on their way to the dumping site. And these dumping sites are far less sophisticated than engineered landfills, which means waste often leaks into the environment.

Generally, the global South lacks waste recovery infrastructure. Unless governments invest in its construction, “technically recyclable” packaging promoted by so many companies will still land in the environment. Beach clean-ups and corporate commitments alone are not enough to solve the problem.

Finance the opportunity

The tools and technologies exist for the proper management of solid waste. The critical bottleneck lies in paying for them—which makes waste management a gold mine of opportunity for those who can find a financially viable way to solve the problem.

This idea of waste as a commodity is rapidly gaining traction: land for landfills is limited, legislation on plastics is tightening, pressures from civil society are mounting, and the quantity of garbage produced is only growing. No wonder Macquarie Capital, the largest Australian Investment Bank, is investing in solid waste management plants. The European Investment Bank, The World Bank, Raymond James Investors, and the International Finance Corporation are also investing in and providing services to the waste management sector.

Beyond waste management, waste prevention is also a potential gold mine. The problem of plastics in the ocean represents a multibillion-dollar investment opportunity for those interested in financing the development of alternative packaging solutions. The entire fast-moving consumer goods sector, among many others (tires, shoes, etc.), is experiencing pressure to move from conventional packaging to more innovative packaging that keeps products safe without harming the environment. Plastics, it seems, have reached their shelf life in the green-economy.

Understanding the informal sector

In the world of plastics, 19 out of the 20 countries that pollute the most have a thriving informal sector of waste management. This sector is neither taxed nor monitored by government, and yet it plays the predominant role in waste management by collecting and recovering easy-to-recycle materials. As valuable as this is, waste becomes essentially untraceable once it enters the informal sector; and without knowing material flows, it becomes all the more difficult to suggest solutions.

Fortunately, organizations across the world are recognizing this blind spot and are getting interested in understanding these material flows. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development studied informal approaches to a circular economy in India. Similarly, the World Bank released a report on the role of the informal sector in waste management. CSIRO, a research agency of the Australian Federal Government, launched the world’s largest marine pollution project to provide “hard numbers on the amount of litter entering the ocean by using real data collected on coastlines and cities across the globe.” The Ocean Conservancy, along with McKinsey, published a report on land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean. And under the New Plastic Economy initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Nestlé is leading the Pioneer Project SEA within the New Plastics Economy, to build an understanding of the waste management systems in priority countries like the Philippines and Indonesia where marine litter is a significant problem. I spent my time managing Project SEA while working at Nestlé.

Vital data on material flows in the global South is now being generated and new insights into the informal sector developed and explored.

The debate over biodegradable Plastics

The United Nations Environment Program has clarified several misconceptions and concerns regarding biodegradable plastics and the marine environment.

  • Non-uniformity among nations and even regions within a nation, to label something as “biodegradable” or “bioplastic” creates confusion as “bioplastics” can refer to both “biodegradable plastics” and the “bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable.”
  • “Biodegradable plastic” does not necessarily degrade by itself. The conditions under which it degrades vary widely. Most biodegradable plastics need industrial composting plants. Thus, before society attempts to use biodegradable plastics as a silver bullet, requisite infrastructure to compost these plastics must be developed.
  • The behavior of biodegradable plastics in the marine environment “may be poorly understood,” according to UNEP. The extent of knowledge today covers how a particular biodegradable plastic will behave on land, under specific conditions. In the marine environment, almost nothing is known about how the plastic will behave.

The debate over waste incineration

There is an ongoing debate between civil society, governments, and corporate stakeholders regarding the potential of incineration to play a role in reducing plastic waste. Civil society often argues that incineration is bad for the environment, adds toxic fumes to the atmosphere, and kills hundreds of thousands of jobs in the informal sector. More importantly, civil society states that burning waste is not a solution to the problem. Companies, and often governments, are in favor of waste incineration, which they say produces energy and helps countries that face an over-abundance of waste and a dearth of energy. Moreover, until plastics that degrade themselves emerge, defenders of incineration advocate allowing the use of incineration technology to solve the existing crisis; that is, perhaps for the time being it is better to incinerate plastic waste than let it leak into the oceans.

The debate over pyrolysis

Pyrolysis is a controlled process of thermal decomposition applied to many materials. In the area of plastic packaging, it yields carbon black, which can be used for manufacturing tires or roads, some crude oil, and syngas, which can be used for cooking. As with incineration, most advocates of pyrolysis put it forward not as a final solution to the widespread problem of plastic pollution, but as a stopgap measure. Some corporations and governments, however, view pyrolysis as a final solution that is “circular”— from fossil fuels you can manufacture plastics; pyrolize plastics to go back where you began. Moreover, pyrolysis plants require a fraction of the cost that is needed to set-up incinerators.

Photo courtesy of recycleharmony.