With so much doom and gloom when it comes to the future of our planet, I thought it might be a nice change to talk about some promising solutions being implemented around the world to help solve one of our planet’s most pressing challenges: plastic pollution.
Plastic, discovered about 125 years ago, took several decades to gain popularity and become widely-used (which began around the 1960s). There’s no doubt that plastic has revolutionized how we live, in both good and bad ways. The discovery and use of plastic in medicine has improved human health (think about the use of syringes and sterilization) and reduced costs on a number of different consumer products. But, such a miraculous material comes with a price.
Fast forward several decades and plastic pollution is now a global crisis. In the last 40 years, 8 trillion metric tons of plastic have been used, with 80% of it still lying in landfills or floating in our oceans. Over 8 million tonnes of plastic waste surge into the ocean each year—the equivalent of a dump truck’s worth per minute. This amount of plastic in our oceans is threatening the health of marine ecosystems and its inhabitants. Plastics contain harmful chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which affects the growth, reproduction, and development in aquatic organisms, causing severe repercussions for the oceanic food web on which we all depend. It’s even estimated that plastic will outweigh fish—whose stomachs are already full of plastic—by 2050 if we continue on our current path.
BPA is also a known human carcinogen. Exposure to this chemical and others in plastics has been linked to cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other illnesses and conditions. BPA contamination in our environment also threatens agricultural production by affecting soil fertility through impeding nitrogen fixation, among other vital processes. While much of the science and long-term impacts are yet to be fully understood and measured, we know that plastic pollution harms both us and the planet.
Despite these concerns, plastics are everywhere and in almost everything, and often tossed out pretty carelessly. In many parts of the world, they’re valueless and are difficult to recycle. The problem is that plastics take 450-1000 years to degrade, meaning they linger around in the environment for a long time (too long!). With little alternative but to chuck them into landfills, which contaminates the environment, and only being able to recycle a very small fraction of them, we and our planet are in desperate need of better alternatives.
How do we stop plastic pollution in the oceans from the source?
And since a good majority of plastic can't be recycled, what do we do with all that waste?
Well, there are a couple promising solutions to share with you…
Tackling plastic pollution at the source will be essential for solving this crisis. 80% of all ocean plastic originates from land and extremely poor regions are the most likely to suffer from extreme plastic pollution. In these regions, the lack of waste management infrastructure and greater dependency on single-use packaging results in a disproportionate amount of pollution. This represents an opportunity to transform plastic from a waste product to a source of currency and a resource for change.
Plastic Bank has created a new system for plastic “exchange,” similar to any other currency exchange, in which collected plastic is exchanged for currency or other valuable goods. Collectors take plastic to a collection site—a Plastic Bank Branch—where the collectors are registered as members and the plastic is sorted, weighed and given value. Collected plastic is recycled and processed into new raw material feedstock, called Social Plastic, which can be purchased by manufacturers to produce more environmentally and socially ethical products.
This completes the plastic loop, creating a sustainable, circular economy. The model is run as a coop, in which members are provided with a digital bank account and digital ID—often their very first—as well as other workplace benefits such as health insurance. In this way, the impact goes beyond ocean health: new economic opportunities are created for the world’s most disadvantaged communities and recycling becomes dignified work. Collectors are not waste pickers or scavengers, rather they are recycling entrepreneurs.
Plastic then becomes earned income for individuals around the world, which is especially needed in developing nations with little opportunity for economic advancement. In order to amplify the scalability of Plastic Bank operations, Plastic Bank has developed a blockchain-based transaction platform, which can be used on any mobile device. The app uses cutting-edge technology, such as Smart Contracts, to ensure that all transactions are secure and transparent. This way, economic development created in vulnerable regions is not threatened by corruption or fraud. Developed with IBM, the app is built using the same infrastructure as the world’s biggest banks, allowing for infinite scalability.
Throughout this process “Social Plastic Ecosystems” are created in which ocean plastic can be prevented at the source by making plastic too valuable to just toss out.
Blue Planet Environmental Solutions is a company striving to create socially-inclusive end-to-end sustainable solutions to our most pressing waste problems. Rudra Environmental Solutions, the precursor and inspiration for Blue Planet, began as an experiment to use plastics as fuel with the goal to address single use plastic waste. Concerned with the mountains of plastic waste and contamination in India, Dr. Medha Tadpatrika and her colleague Shirish N. Phadtare began running experiments to see if they could reverse plastic production and use it as fuel, with zero carbon footprint. After a number of experiments, they found their method: after plastic is collected, segregated and cleaned, they developed a machine that effectively reverses the plastic production process using thermo catalytic depolymerization (TCD). The TCD process cracks the long chains of polymers within plastic to produce usable fuel and cleaned synthetic gas. The machine is able to process plastic waste that is not easily recyclable including wrappers and other thin plastic and residual plastic waste material from businesses and households. The fuel produced is directly used as a source for burning without any need for further processing. Although the exact recovery ratio depends on the types of plastic received, the machine produces an average recovery rate of 75% with 1kg of plastic to 750ml of clean diesel.
So there you have it: two solutions that have both environmental and social impact. In the plastic-to-fuel innovation, the fuel produced by disregarded plastic is sold at a price that most low-income families can afford, and it burns much cleaner than diesel. With Plastic Bank, local communities are incentivized to recycle rather than toss out plastic waste, and even provides an income for plastic collectors. This plastic—now termed ‘social’ plastic—is then upcycled and sold to companies around the world, including large corporations such as Heinkel and SC Johnson, which are buying and using nearly 100% social plastic in their products.
These solutions give me the hope that plastic waste will be diverted from landfills, our oceans and re-used (upcycled) in products that we need in our daily lives.