Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change?

By Doug Woodring 15 October, 2015

Doug Woodring, Ocean Recovery Alliance founder, shares challenges ahead & strategies for a plastics-free ocean

Plastic waste is a challenge to achieving clean water; 8mt of plastic entered the Ocean - annual impact of USD13 bn
Countries aren't prepared for increasing waste levels; “Old guard” & economies of scale hinder recycling & innovation
Solutions require community engagement & changing mindsets; also presents opportunities for business

Many argue that the two biggest issues facing the world today are climate change and access to clean water.   These are the two macro issues, but they are exacerbated by, or are results of, problems which actually can be relatively easily fixed if the right focus and strategies for engagement across our communities are put into place.  These include air pollution, which is a localized issue caused by emissions of factories or vehicles, and water pollution, caused by effluent of liquid or solid waste.   When considering the negative consequences of unhealthy water, however, the impacts can be much more severe on health than those of air pollution, simply because of the way that toxins are exposed to humans, and the relative quantities involved.

Plastic waste is now the biggest challenge to handle, given its light weight, durability & relative low value when it is not recovered at scale

Given this importance of water quality, the best way to bring about change in communities is to start by fixing the solid waste problem that our growing creation of municipal solid waste represents.  In particular, plastic waste is now the biggest challenge to handle, given its light weight, durability, and relative low value when it is not collected or recovered at scale.  Paper, metal, glass and organic material can all be easily handled with the proper technologies. But plastic waste, particularly when it is contaminated with food waste or other materials, and because of its wide variety of types, becomes costly to sort and make into a valuable commodity again.
Sadly, when not collected and managed properly, plastic waste can make its way to our waterways, and the sea, causing impacts along the way that are relatively easy for us to manage if we try to do so. Waste in our water impacts our health, wildlife, fishing, tourism, and the mindset of the community that they are not being cared for, or, they do not trust that the waste management and recycling system is working properly.

“Old guard” & economies of scale are hindering innovations and improved recycling programmes

Waste impacts billions of people on a daily basis and it is right under our noses.  But because it is both “non-sexy” in terms of the technologies and remediation options that exist, and because the engrained modus-operandi of waste treatment in many countries is operated by the often non-innovative “old guard” (waste management sector), it has proven hard to make significant improvements in closing the gap between our consumption “outflows” of waste and our ability to channel waste resources back into our economies.   All of this impacts water quality, and all of which could be solved with proper, job-creating, innovation-introducing programs for resource recovery which turns waste to worth.  Moreover, if we can collectively solve our plastic pollution problems, we will be able to make major improvements in our cities, environment, and water systems.
If we can 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.

8 million tonnes of plastic waste makes its way to the ocean every year
The annual impact to the ocean from plastic pollution in 2014 was ~USD13 bn

Recent reports from the University of Georgia, by Jenna Jambeck and team, estimate that roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic waste makes its way to the ocean every year. What does this mean to you and me?  Well, it 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 expected by 2025 into perspective, it would be like covering all of Japan in 10m deep of waste each year.  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 USD13 billion.
Not many countries in the world are well prepared for this increase in waste, as stresses on land and water quality mean that our old ways of getting rid of the “mess” are by no means infinite.

Solving the plastic waste puzzle requires changing mindsets & community engagement and also presents business opportunities

By solving the plastic portion of the waste stream, a large percentage of the materials we throw away will all be able to be captured along the way.  By unlocking the plastic waste puzzle, we will be able to bring community stakeholders onto the same team as the change-makers for good, greatly helping the stress put on our water systems along the way.

Need to break the “dispose, remove & forget,” mindset and move to “capture, harness & re-purpose”

If we can 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 the concept of “capture, harness and re-purpose.”
With constrained resources and growing externalities, solving our plastic waste footprint can be the environmental trigger that we can all rally behind, and fix, because in the end of the day, virtually every piece of plastic has been touched by a human hand, and this is not the case with carbon or air pollution inputs.  This movement will also unleash a flurry of opportunities for those companies who are on the front-lines of engagement and participation in this space of creating products and services which give back to the communities they serve.

Fixing this can lead to a re-think of environmental stewardship

There is no natural enemy for trash, and by fixing something that children can see, and communities feel, 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.

Further Reading

  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks -China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Are You A Responsible Consumer? -With waste levels already sky high and set to grow, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic. Whether as an individual or corporate, see what action you can take
  • Biodegradable Films: Save Water & Soil – Plastic mulch films help save irrigation water but unfortunately, the plastic residue pollutes the soil. BASF’s Dirk Staerke expands on the damage caused and how biodegradable films can be a win-win solution for both water and soil
  • Bottled Water: Drink Responsibly – Know your bottled water – is it “fake water”? Is bottled water regulated? What is each bottle’s environmental footprint? Those “in the know” may be more inclined to go back to the tap. Hongqiao Liu walks you through how to drink responsibly
  • China’s Bottled Water: Boom Or Bust? – China’s bottled water industry stands at a fork in the road. Big expansion plans by the industry could be derailed by central policies to protect drinking water sources. Get ahead of these key risks
  • China Water Risk special report: “Bottled Water In China: Boom Or Bust?

Bottled Water In China - Boom Or Bust - Report Covers

  • 2015 World Water Forum: 5 Key Takeaways – See what tops our list of key takeaways from the 2015 World Water Forum in South Korea. From bottled water to ‘green hydropower’ and transboundary issues – where does China stand?
  • Sustainable China: 8 Behavioural Guidelines – China is moving to more sustainable development including how she behaves, like more walking, less meat and less golf. Here are China Water Risks’s 8 favourite behavioural guides from China
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – China is the 3rd country globally to enact polices to move towards a circular economy. See how & why China needs to make this transition; which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
Doug Woodring
Author: Doug Woodring
Doug Woodring the Founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization which is focused on bringing innovative solutions, technology, collaborations and policy together to impact positive improvements for the health of the ocean. Two of its global programs were launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010, the Global Alert platform, and the Plastic Disclosure Project. In 2008 he co-founded Project Kaisei, which focused on the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, and he is a UNEP Climate Hero for his efforts. Woodring has worked in Asia for over 20 years in a number of industries which have been at the forefront of technology within their sectors, mainly related to the environment and new media platforms. Prior to working with technology startups, while at Merrill Lynch Asset Management Hong Kong in 1998, he proposed the company’s first global environmental technology fund which was later launched in 2001.
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