Plastic buffet – all you can eat

by Douglas Woodring
Skyscraper Singapore
Douglas Woodring
Douglas Woodring

After working globally on the issue of plastic pollution for over 10 years, motivated by plenty of time in the water as a competitive swimmer, outrigger paddler, and event organiser, the much needed tipping point for awareness on this issue has finally been reached. Now comes the hard part – fixing it.

Working in Asia for over 25 years has given broad and unique insight on this problem, driving home the fact that in order to be solved, programmes need to be social in nature and structure, not simply easy technological fixes with little human touchpoint or interactions. With over 40,000 different variations in the way plastic and products are made, all within seven main “families”, it can be argued that solving plastic pollution is more complicated than bringing resolution to climate change. It does not mean that the impacts are necessarily greater, but it means that the solutions are extremely varied, and need to be sized according to populations, consumption and dispersed aggregations of waste resources, all of which assumes relatively easy and pure material collection.

Water plastic pollution Asia

This brings up an important focus on plastic circularity, which many have not addressed yet in full. In fact, the proposed Basel Amendments suggest that in fact, much of the world has yet to digest the meaning and importance of a circular economy, and whether circularity in resource reincarnation is it meant to be “local and domestic” only, or whether it should be global in nature, benefitting from competitive advantages which each country can contribute, either via processing or second-life consumption.

Today’s trade in products is global, with exports of goods and packaging going across borders, yet without concern for the capacities of importing countries to handle advance, varied polymer types, when products become waste. Poor recycling and waste management infrastructure, due to decades of insufficient investment in the sector, and reliance on the “competitive advantages” of other countries to absorb materials for circularity (recycling), has meant that most of the world is ill-equipped to create independent circular economies of their own. Why should countries be allowed to import products from others, but then be expected to have the resources to take care of the resultant waste within their often constrained geographic confines?

Plastic pollution Asia

Although much of the global community celebrated with broad agreement to classify plastic waste as a harmful substance within the new recent amendments to the 1989 Basel Convention, the devil is in the details. I believe this is potentially the biggest mistake the world has made on the road to reduced plastic pollution, as it has a strong chance of backfiring, and leading to even more illegal dumping and open burning than we have today. Extensive press coverage of “illegal” and contaminated shipments of plastic destined for recycling have caused a whiplash effect, bringing broad-based bans on all types of plastic resources, regardless of their quality and commodity values. |

Even though the amendments have not yet been legally implemented among the signatory countries, many governments have taken it upon themselves to show engagement on the topic, with headline actions that have mainly come without consideration for long term consequences. These impacts include domestic loss of recycling industry jobs, and more importantly, the loss of capacity to help grow domestic recycling which is mandatory if circular economies need to be independently operated (per country). Of course large countries may be able to weather this storm, both because they have land available for the containment of waste (legal or otherwise), or at least its storage, but many smaller, less financially capable countries, do not have this option. Forcing domestic-circularity on countries in terms of recycling is like asking all countries to grow their own food, such as Iceland growing its own bananas, and Fiji its own apples.

In terms of ecosystem impact that plastic presents, it is also important to remember that every land animal or bird that can fit plastic in its mouth can also be in danger, and virtually every species of wildlife can be assumed to have been impacted by ingesting plastic, having mistaken it for food because of its colour, shape or smell of “food.” The ocean itself, though garnering all of the press around plastic pollution, itself plays little role in helping to solve the plastic pollution issue – it is merely the recipient of all of our poorly managed activities upstream.

On the positive side, the issue of marine litter has finally become “household” discussion around the world, helped by images of all types of ocean wildlife being impacted by plastic of different sizes. This means that we no longer need to explain “why” it matters, but instead, we can go directly into discussions of how they (as a company or government) can make a difference in reducing their plastic footprint. In this case, the use of our Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) as a methodology for baseline footprint analysis is one of the strongest programmes in the world, if used by all, as it is much like carbon and water reporting. If you don’t measure what you have, recover and use as recycled content or new materials, you have little chance of knowing how to properly move into a circular economy with your products or the communities you serve.

Plastic Pollution

I do not believe the flow of plastic going into the ocean has slowed much yet, simply because of population growth and increased consumption which is outpacing all of the good initiatives and new programmes (many of which have not really kicked into high gear and scale yet) which have been announced in the recent two years. This is compounded with lack of recycling and proper waste management, which is outstripped by new greenfield production of plastic polymers with “fracked plastic” and relatively cheap virgin petroleum based feedstocks. Without comprehensive extended producer responsibility programmes (EPR), both domestic, and internationally (which few talk about today), it is not likely that there will be money in the system to effectively incentivise both waste reduction, and the improved capacities for collection and reincarnation of those products put into the market. Exporting something that is “recyclable” in one country does not help other countries who import that same item, but have no local capacity to handle the material in its 2 nd life.

One way that communities can become engaged on this issue, with direct focus on their own watersheds, is to use our Global Alert app/platform, again potentially one of the most powerful tools available if used by stakeholders in a conscious and collective manner. Global Alert is in Spanish and English, and allows people to report trash hotspots anywhere in the world’s waterways and coastlines. It is then up to people who care for those waters (NGOs, governments, universities, Rotary Clubs, schools, businesses) to create better management , prevention and ongoing cleanup programmes with booms, nets and catchment devices upstream. This will then lead to cleaner waters, as they think of where the material comes from, how it can be recycled if caught, and how to stop it from flowing.

The increased public engagement of the plastic industry around the world has been an improvement in showing that there is real money available for programmes, projects and infrastructure implementation, mainly within SE Asia and India. This engagement by the industry is expected to grow, both as good examples for others to replicate are created and proven, and because of the billions of dollars also being spent on greenfield, virgin material production, which will simply mean that there is more material to remediate within our communities.

Skyscraper Asia tour
Skyscraper Singapore

The big question on funding is whether entrepreneurs and innovators around the world, many of whom are not in the target area of focus for plastic pollution remediation, are able to get needed, early stage funding, as they are often plagued with domestic approvals of their new solutions, while having to contend with the capital market mindsets of short-term or large-scale gains, while not getting the social credit for the solutions they are able to provide. The philanthropical world is one of the only possible saviours in this space in terms of speed and scale, yet they have their own historical issues which also slow them from making the needed environmental and social impacts that they purport to empower. Catalytic Philanthropy is a much needed new influence in this space to fill the gap between small and large projects, with the smaller ones constituting more than 80% of the market needs.

Sadly, recycling for plastic today is often getting a bad image, partly because trust is lost in most communities, because governments are often seen mixing sorted materials with normal waste, and lack transparency in where and how recycling is taking place. The ban on recyclables from China helped drive this issue home for many countries in the
West, including Japan and Hong Kong, many of whom all sent their domestically collected “recyclables” (which local communities assumed were being treated domestically), to China and other parts of Asia. Though in reality this should be allowed to happen with the right quality controls in place, the effect of this off-shoring of processing is that none of the exporting countries now have the capacity to recycle well on their own shores. This is a big loss of jobs and circular economy revenue, but with improved sorting programmes at source, i.e. “Wet and Dry” sorting only, which we encouragingly promote anywhere we speak, and not via coloured bins with many choices, communities would be able to recover higher volumes of material, at higher values, and thus re-installing trust in the system.

Skyscraper Singapore
Skyscraper Singapore

We are proud to have just released a report “Crafting High-Impact Voluntary Commitments to Prevent and Reduce Marine Litter,” which was made possible by funding support from UN Environment. This entailed the scoring of 580 global commitments the past five years (through October 2018), with results showing that many commitments did not produce the scale of positive impacts as expected, partly because they were not implemented properly with funding, resources or will of stakeholders. In report allowed us to create a new scorecard methodology for evaluating commitments, which is enhanced with a toolkit of 11 topics, both of which can be used for crafting “Commitments V2.0,” which can be made stronger and more effective for everyone.

This includes the Magnitude of the commitment, and how much impact it can make, as well as replicability and scalability. It also includes measures of Velocity, in terms of how fast commitments can be implemented or activated. These can be used by entities of any type (public, private, government), and entities or organisations big or small, all
to help engaged, thoughtful focus on the complex topic of plastic pollution.

Skyscraper Singapore

Growing populations and increased weather incidences will continue to mean that plastic pollution remains a topical issue in the years to come, but there are also some great opportunities for new models of waste management, collection, recovery, job creation and innovations that are all needed to help solve these challenges. Once we have a few of the new large-scale models and programmes showcased, it should be easier for other countries, large and small, to create their own versions of these successes, modified for the size of the communities they are meant to improve.

About Ocean Recovery Alliance:
Ocean Recovery Alliance is an NGO based in Hong Kong and California, and is the founder of the Plasticity Forums, and organiser of the “ Skyscraper’s” Asia Tour , a huge 11m tall whale sculpture now on display in front of the Art Science Museum in Singapore, made from plastic recovered from the Pacific Ocean. The group uses environmental entrepreneurship to bring awareness, education, innovations and solutions to reduce plastic pollution on a global scale, which can be replicated across communities in any country. It has worked with the World Bank, UN Environment and Clinton Global Initiative, and was awarded the 2018 Prince’s Award from Prince Albert of Monaco for its work for the ocean across a broad spectrum of users, from youth, to companies and governments.

It’s programmes include the Global Alert app (available to everyone), to report trash hotspots in the world’s waterways and coastlines, the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) – a methodology for businesses and governments to measure their plastic footprints, and the Plasticity Forum on innovations for plastic in its second life. It has recently released “Plastic Pollution Commitments 2.0” in a report with funding support from UN Environment, which offers a new scorecard and toolkit methodology so that the private sector, governments and the general community can make more effective, high-impact V2.0 commitments.

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