Closing the plastic loop

Source: Wikipedia - 3D printing

We are producing an ever increasing amount of waste, including a large amount of plastic waste that is going straight in our oceans. A recent report released by the journal Science estimated plastic waste produced by 192 coastal countries in 2010 was around 275 million metric tons (MT), with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT of this waste entering the ocean. The report states without implementing proper waste management infrastructure this figure will rise to 155 million metric tons by 2025. Can our oceans absorb all our CO2 as well as this much plastic?

Recycling plays an important role, both in conserving our precious resources and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. Awareness of recycling in developed countries is generally high with most cities having the necessary infrastructure to collect used containers/packaging etc, though the sale of products containing recycled materials is not that high. A recycling system is not generally affordable for emerging economies, with sorting and reuse happening in a more informal market. There are exciting developments happening with ‘Plastic Bank’ which is looking at using plastic waste as a resource and also helping emerging economies make a viable living off this new market with Social Plastic.

It is interesting to note the volumes being recycled are increasing, but with a sharp increase in recycled materials being shipped to Asia from the EU and USA for reprocessing. Generally this is a good thing as it means this amount of materials is being kept out of landfills, but recycling needs to occur in a sustainable way – with concern for the people and environment during the recycling process and there needs to a market for the recycled end product. For the higher value materials such as steel and aluminum recycling already makes good economic sense. It is for difficult materials, such as some plastics, which makes recycling less economic.

Flexible soft plastics, like plastic bags are generally one of those materials that are in the ‘too hard’ basket for main stream recycling, but with their use increasing to grow due to its - lightweight and lower cost, a solution needs to be looked at. In Australia a company called Replas has developed an efficient way to recycle flexible plastics - turning them into items such as park benches, safety bollards and decking. Recycled plastic products are low maintenance, long-lasting and offer a good environmental alternative to the use of traditional materials. The recycling infrastructure in Australia, my home country, does not currently collect flexible plastics, REDcycle however have set up a product stewardship model where everyone involved in the life cycle of a product shares responsibility for the packaging. Through a hub of collection sites at local supermarkets flexible plastics are being now being widely recycled in Australia.

For recycling to be truly sustainable we need to buy products containing the recycled material, in the form of recycled packaging, within products such as plastic furniture or 3D printing cartridges. Companies are not always looking to use recycled content due to a potentially higher cost to virgin materials and/or perceived risks of recycled materials. Recycled materials that are fit for purpose and used in products that have a lower tolerance factor for impurities is the way to go. With the quality of recycled materials increasing as the market grows. We can also support companies to make the decision to move to using materials such as Social Plastic.

Source: Waste to Wealth - making handicrafts from soft plastic

What does this mean for Cleanleap countries?

There are a number of ways we can leapfrog over the looming plastic waste issue and follow the golden rule of reduce, reuse and recycle. We can reduce the amount of plastic waste through ways such as lightweighting/thinner plastic or through improving single use options. We can turn waste into a resource through innovative programs such as Waste to Wealth which is a collaborative solution to help people in African slums develop markets for waste. We can also implement a system similar to the Replas model to recycle flexible plastics. People in developed countries can play their part by committing to buying recycled wherever possible.