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unnamed-2You may have read recent reports from the University of Georgia, by Jenna Jambeck and team, about the estimated amount of plastic waste that makes its way to the ocean every year.   If not, the number is staggering at roughly 8 million tons per year.   This is the same as placing 5 garbage bags of trash on every foot of the 217,000 miles of coastline on our planet.   This estimate is only for plastic, but to put the World Bank’s estimates of global municipal solid waste (MSW) production into perspective, it would be like covering all of California in 10 yards-deep of waste each year.

The scary fact is that predictions from the World Bank also expect this number to double within 15 years, as population growth and consumption takes its toll on our resources, much of which for single-use items. In a report last year commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the annual impact to the ocean from plastic pollution was estimated to be US$13bn. Not many countries in the world are well prepared for this increase in waste.

With these metrics in mind, it is worth considering whether plastic waste is the trigger that will drive broader social engagement around environmental issues at the community level, but also in terms of driving scaled opportunities in the circular economy. Plastic is a highly valuable material, which virtually none of our communities could survive completely without today. However, its durability, lightweight, and complexity in material, are what also make it problematic for remediation and proper management, once initial use has expired.

Virtually all plastic can be recycled, however, the uber-challenge comes in collecting, sorting and re-purposing within the same material “family”, so that economies of scale can be achieved. This challenge is greatly amplified when countries do not have the means to re-process, use, or export these resources.   A mixed municipal waste stream stifles the scope of opportunities available to extract the value needed to keep re-circulating these materials within our economy.

unnamedThere is no natural enemy for trash, and by fixing something that children can see, and communities feel – that of trash on streets and in our waters, a wide range of stakeholders can be part of a transformation in resource management that can lead to a much broader set of solutions and re-think of environmental stewardship.   Unlike climate change, which impacts certain locations more so or less so at certain times, waste impacts billions of people on a daily basis, and it is right under our noses. Waste, is “non-sexy”, however, in terms of attracting expenditure allocation and investment needed to treat it as the resources that it is.

Furthermore, the engrained modus-operandi of waste treatment in many countries is operated by the often non-innovative “old guard,” of waste-haulers and landfill operators makes it hard to change things and close the gap between our consumption “outflows”, and our ability to channel waste back into a resource for use in our economic activities, be that for material or energy recovery.

A good analogy for why solving the plastic waste puzzle is the trigger for broader improvements, is the “broken window” theory for poor neighborhoods. This states that maintaining and monitoring our communities, while fixing all of the broken windows, helps create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, in this case, preventing more trash. If you can clean-up the waste issues, you create a sense of pride for that area, and its waters, leading more people to participate in recycling and proper waste disposal.

If we could collectively break the mindset of “dispose, remove, and forget,” vis-à-vis waste, we would be able to create millions of global jobs related to a mindset of “capture, harness and re-purpose.” , The main angle here is that with constrained resources or growing environmental externalities, including water, health, disease, food, and even the quest for tourism dollars, solving our plastic waste footprint could be the trigger that moves our population in a new environmental direction.

If we can also get our heads around creating economies of scale for plastic waste, with the help of the companies who are involved in using, selling and distributing the material in the first place, all kinds of positive results will happen.  This means creating bring-back programs, using reverse supply chains to re-capture some of the material that has been sold, increased use of recycled content in products, and being part of the “design-for-recycling” economy.

The creation of a beneficial movement that communities can embrace will trigger the ability to address harder environmental issues with achievability, and  by unlocking the plastic waste puzzle, we will be able to bring community stakeholders onto the same team as the change-makers for good. It is this type of discussion in June, at the 4th annual Plasticity Forum, this year in Cascais, Portugal, which will help to form the collaborative, scaled opportunities we need in order to realize the value that this environmental trigger represents.

 

Doug Woodring, Founder, Ocean Recovery Alliance/Plasticity Forum

The 4th annual Plasticity Forum will be held on June 8th and 9th in Cascais, Portugal, just two days after The Economist’s World Ocean Summit, and as part of Portugal’s Blue Week. Learn more: www.plasticityforum.com.

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