Plastic Opportunities for Change

We need practical and scalable solutions to tackle plastic challenges.

Creating a perfect world of circulating resources is an enormous challenge, but the benefits of resource recovery and reuse are both exciting and imperative if our global community is to function with an improving quality of life.

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Plastic is an amazing material with many uses, but it might be one of the most vexing issues of our time.

When evaluating our main waste streams and material categories, we know that virtually everything has value and can be harnessed for circulation if the processes and infrastructure are available to do so.

This includes solutions for paper, metal, glass and organic material. Plastic, however, poses a separate, large-scale challenge for us all, which is only now becoming apparent.

Plastic: The good and the bad

Plastic is an amazing material with so many good uses, but its “after-life,” in the form of plastic pollution, might be creating one of the most vexing issues of our time.

Plastic has a half-life that far exceeds carbon. It is highly durable, complex in its make-up, widely diverse in its types, light weight and hard to recover economically at scale.

These traits create daunting challenges for scaled recovery. As the world’s population grows, with an growing consumption of goods made of or packed within plastic, the burden on our communities continues to increase.

The quest for reduced carbon use in transportation, production and packaging has exploited many of the low-hanging-fruit opportunities that plastic and light-weighting have provided. But we now face tough questions of where to go next and how to recover this permanent material that we use in a plethora of non-permanent ways.

The recovery and circulation of plastic waste, however, also poses some large opportunities for the engaged leaders in business, innovation and policy who see this blight in our environment and waters continuing to grow.

Business opportunities

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Plastic pollution directly impacts the abilities of cities to be resilient and smart.

Those who lead in the use of bring-back programs, optimizing reverse supply chains and home recovery-collection programs to complement deliveries are well-suited to inspire, recruit and engage communities.

Collectively, we need to encourage thought leaders, innovators and social-change experts to collaborate with the Elon Musks of the world, companies who can run (and benefit from) the programs and the policy makers who can facilitate laws and regulations that make material recovery a priority.

These improvements can and should be considered regardless of the size of the company or whether they operate in villages, towns, municipalities or nations.

Whether or not the ocean and our waters upstream are drivers for needed improvements in plastic pollution reduction, the health of our communities and our customers should incentivize demand and encourage management to really focus on active participation in the circular economy.

Plastic pollution is now atop many environmental agendas, as it directly impacts the abilities of cities to be resilient and smart.

Governments can facilitate circularity and waste avoidance, but the private sector will thrive once good case studies are promoted, scaled and replicated.

Private growth

Two recent reports on plastic and the new economies that come from it are relevant: one launched at the World Economic Forum this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the “New Plastics Economy,” and the other issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital.

These offer insights into sectors and solutions for companies big and small, hopefully inspiring the needed leadership in the private sector.

A report we initiated with Trucost for Dell and Algix on net benefit analysis can help to explain the untapped opportunities for a new method of calculating the value of positive externalities, leading to improved brand reputation, consumer empowerment and loyalty.

Although the world is now more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change.

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We need today’s leaders and doers from our private sector to solve the plastic problem.

Waste is a localized issue, and access to feedstock (material) for recycling or energy creation is dependent upon collection and recovery systems that typically do not exist yet in efficient forms, even in developed cities.

No silver bullet 

There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the creation of waste from our consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume. They also must incentivize and reward companies, governments and the communities to participate over the long-term.

We must bring together experts across the plastic spectrum to speak about innovations and solutions for a world without this waste footprint.

Education is great and highly important in our schools, but unless all of the teachers in the world are taught about the complexities and importance of slowing plastic pollution, we won’t get the scaled results across our countries that we need today.

The momentum to get the wheels turning on true circulation is only just beginning. This is where we need today’s leaders and doers from our private sector to kick into gear.

When this happens, our communities, waters and environment become big benefactors of a circular-economy world.

This article first appeared on U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and was republished with permission.

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Douglas Woodring is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Ocean Recovery Alliance.

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