In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, the world’s population has grown by over 1.5bn people, all of whom want to have a safe, comfortable lifestyle. For most of us who live in cities, that does not mean growing or collecting food, or making products, but instead consuming them, as our productive value is usually used to support services or products which we ourselves don’t consume at home. What does that mean? It means that in our busy worlds, we buy products for our own daily lives, made by others, either with a quest to save money on our purchases, or without much care about the price. In both cases we often don’t bother with the “after effects” of that product, either because we don’t have enough income to worry about it, or, we might be wealthy enough to have the feeling that “others will deal with it” once disposed of. As a result, products are made with a “low price point” in mind, or, with the belief that single-use is good because it means consumers will continue to purchase that product again and again, when needed. All of this creates waste, much of which is plastic, as plastic is light enough, mold-able for millions of applications, and cheap. What is not keeping up with this growth in our consumption “by-products,” is the waste management and recycling infrastructure to make sure that these products, packaging, wrapping, and convenience items, are not making their way into the environment.
In order to best handle waste in a society, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ranking for the most environmentally sound strategies for dealing with municipal solid waste are as follows, with the optimal solution first: 1) source reduction (including reuse), 2) recycling and composting, 3) energy recovery, 4) treatment and disposal. Source reduction is important because it can save natural resources, conserve energy, reduce pollution, reduce the toxicity of our waste, and save money for consumers and businesses alike.
The EPA’s ranking of strategies in the developed world are on target, but in much of the developing world where consumption is picking up space as consumption grows and packaged products and brands reach into these new markets, it may be harder to rely on source reduction. This might be working in Japan where a rapidly aging society means that national consumption is dropping, but it cannot be relied upon as the most effective way to reduce waste on a mass scale in countries that are rapidly growing. Certain types of packaging and single use items certainly can be re-designed, substituted or removed all together, giving some source reduction on a per-product basis, but in gross terms, population growth usually means consumption growth. To make matters worse, from a waste perspective, if local governments do not have the resources to properly handle waste and recycling, then the burden falls on the society in terms of polluted countrysides, rivers, streams and the ocean. This impacts our health, water quality, ecosystem, agriculture, tourism, fishing, and many other aspects of life that we expect to be available, in a “natural/clean” state, for our “public consumption.”
So, the question is, “how to manage the inventory of waste” that is growing by the day, in economies that are under increasing financial pressures to keep many other aspects of society running smoothly? Some of the new technologies that turn waste and plastic to fuel, or have the ability to recycle many types of plastic at once, are surely bright spots on the horizon for all of us. If we are to truly tackle the plastic waste issue, which is one of the hardest problems to solve for countries without the technologies to make use of it, then we will need to deploy other methods that can both bring local economic value, and large scale environmental improvement.
Therefore, in regards to the EPA’s ranking of waste strategies, particularly in developing countries, or countries where recycling is not as widespread as it could be, like the U.S., we really need to put waste/plastic to fuel at the top of the solutions list.
Money drives change, and when we show that these feedstock streams of waste have a value, either as a new fuel, or a new product, then we have an economic cycle that is sustainable. We need these technologies to scale, and be propagated around the world. This creates jobs, livelihoods, and cleans the environment for us all to use in much healthier and productive ways. If the recycling infrastructure does not exist in many of these countries, which it does not, then these countries may do minimal sorting and processing of material, with little value-added, and ship it elsewhere, but only if they are so lucky as to be able to do that. In many places, the solution is open pit burning, illegal landfills, or river/ocean dumping, and these cause all types of problems that we are trying to solve.
On the other hand, if fuel is made, and often cleaner than the fuel available in that country, then the opportunity to pay people for collection and management is greatly increased. The value added to the societies in these cases are multiple-fold: job creation, cleaner fuel production/use, less waste in the environment, reduced pressure on landfills, improved watersheds and enhanced tourism value, to name a few. Recycling is usually a better option, but usually only if the infrastructure and technology are available. Shipping material elsewhere, however, has its own set of issues, including the carbon impact of moving material, and the potential lack of regulation in the recycling process. There is no silver bullet with waste reduction, so it is important that we consider all options, and use the best ones which are available in the context of the locality. The goal is obviously not to keep producing plastic waste just to keep machines running for fuel or recycling, but the current “inventory” of plastic on this planet is substantial, and until that silver bullet comes with a new ocean degradable, problem-free material, there will be many years ahead of us where plastic waste will be a serious challenge.
The opportunity is here for everyone to take in terms of reducing plastic pollution, with plenty of benefits to go around. Brands can build great customer loyalty by changing their products, packaging, processes and “offerings” to their consumers. Municipalities can get a handle on their waste streams while creating employment opportunities with some of these new innovative technologies, and the environment, ecosystem and ocean all win at the end of the day. This is what Plasticity, the side event at the Rio+20 Earth Summit is all about – a new discussion on the future of plastic, which is happening today. Now all we need is scale, and this is where inspired companies, governments and the general public come into play. Those who are in front, showing their leadership, making improvements to their bottom lines, brands, communities , employees and environs in which they reside, will be the companies, governments and institutions which can look back and realize that it was the Rio+20 Earth Summit, and Plasticity (www.plasticityforum.com), which helped to create the change in direction which caused them to thrive.