At least 8 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean each year. This is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.
Unless industry players successfully take action, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. The facts are overwhelming.
Why is the world’s plastic management system failing? Which step(s) in the plastic economy chain can be optimized? Smart production, consumption and plastic collection processes have to be adopted to transition towards a circular and resource-efficient society.
Out of all every-day items discarded by the public, the share of plastic increased from 1% in 1960 to more than 10% in 2005 in middle and high income countries. A likely explanation to this increase is the global shift of the packaging industry from reusable to single-use containers. Though, this increased waste generation is not sustained by the current waste management infrastructure.
According to a recent study from Sciences Advances, 91% of the plastic waste ever generated has not been recycled. 12% has been incinerated, and 79% has been accumulated in landfills or the natural environment worldwide.
Let’s dive into the plastic value chain in order to better understand the current situation and possible improvements.
Firstly, plastics are produced by the conversion of natural products or by the synthesis from primary chemicals generally coming from oil, natural gas, or coal. 6% of the world’s annual oil production becomes feedstock for plastic manufacturing, equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector.
Plastics can be divided into two major categories, designed to meet the needs of thousands of end-products:
- Thermoplastics, which is the family of plastics that can be melted when heated and hardened when cooled. These characteristics are reversible: it can be reheated, reshaped and frozen repeatedly. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, used to produce water and soda bottled containers, are part of this family.
- Thermosets, which is a family of plastics that undergo a chemical change when heated, creating a three dimensional network. After they are heated and formed, these plastics cannot be re-melted and reformed.
The thermoplastics are highly recyclable, while the thermosets cannot be recycled.
Plastics global production has skyrocketed: from 1.5 million tonnes (Mt) in 1964 to 311 Mt in 2014.
Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation
Plastics are then used for varied purposes: packaging, building, construction, etc. Packaging represents the main end-use market as we estimate it accounts for 40% of today’s total plastics use.
It is estimated that 30% of the plastics ever produced is currently in use. Obviously, products lifecycle vary greatly but it is calculated that half of the products are designed for a single use,, and that the average “working life” of a plastic bag is 15 minutes.
Once used by the consumers, plastics are thrown away and only a minor portion is collected.
Implementing effective collection systems is critical. There are four ways the collectivities can offer plastic collection services:
- curbside recycling, where residents are asked to separate designated recyclables from their household garbage and to place them into special receptacles or bags.
- drop-off recycling, where designated bins are located in central collection location throughout the community
- buy-back centers, where private companies pay for recyclable waste materials which are brought to them
- deposits centers, where the consumer returns its plastic product to an authorized redemption center and gets his deposit back.
More than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection according to the World Bank. The lack of infrastructure and the quality of the collected waste explain the poor results of today’s recycling rate. Coloured plastic, or collected plastic that has been contaminated with food, cannot always be recycled as removing traces of contaminants or colour has proved extremely challenging.
At the end of their life, high quality plastics waste are still valuable resources. Once collected, plastics can be:
– mechanically recycled, i.e. transformed into new feedstock, or
– chemically recycled, i.e turned into energy via a gasification or pyrolysis process.
Yet, as mentioned above, only 9% of the plastics waste has ever been recycled.
Why is the global waste management failing? Tackling the global plastics pollution challenge requires drastic improvements along the whole chain.
At the top of the chain, plastic products manufacturers are in the front line to innovate and design optimal products.
Leading brands such as Danone, The Coca-Cola Company, L’Oreal, M&S, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, are working towards 100% recyclable, reusable packaging, and aim at adopting a closed-loop model where new bottles will be made 100% out of recycled plastics. As GreenPeace pointed out, only 6-7% of recycled plastics is used by six of the largest soft drinks companies (excluding Coca-Cola), on average. Evian inspired a fundamental shift early 2018 by announcing that by 2025, all of its bottes will be produced from 100% recycled plastic (currently at 25%).
Rethinking the production is part of the answer to today’s global issue. Bioplastics, which come from the idea that polymers that constitute plastics are not only found in fossilized forms but also in renewable sources, are promising and degrade faster than conventional plastics but most of them are still noxious for the environment since they leave residues and toxins as they degrade.
New products emerge nowadays, and gain traction given their efficiencies. Avani, for example, is a start-up company in Bali which conceptualized and sells alternative packaging based on renewable resources, offering a perfect alternative to plastic bags. Made out of cassava roots and all natural resins, Avani’s products are 100% biodegradable and can be safely consumed by snails, insects and other animals or be dissolved in water, for similar properties than conventional plastic.
Dramatic improvements also have to be undertaken in terms of plastics collection. A better education in the developed and developing worlds are necessary to make sure the wastes are sorted correctly and end up in the right containers to allow a successful recycling result.
Additionally, trash detection can be optimized, especially in urban areas. This is the objective of Pirika, a start-up located in Tokyo which uses artificial intelligence to solve the littering issue. Pirika developed an program that maps and measures litter using visual recognition technology, that proves to be very useful for local authorities and private actors involved in urban development.
Pirika created a smartphone app as well to fight the litter problem as they believe in the power of social media networks. Through the app, users can point litter out, pick it up and share pictures with the Pirika community. Used in more than 80 countries, over 75 million pieces of litter have been collected.
Technologies are being developed to improve the sorting, recycling phase and waste valorisation. Advances in automated sorting technology, investment in infrastructure and better legislation are enabling exceptionally high purity results in plastics recycling.
Detailed sorting required by today’s complex products is enabled through innovative technologies.
The breakdown of plastic waste (PE bottles) to molecule level while separating the colour and other contaminants is for instance possible thanks to the Ioniqa technology. This major challenge of separating coloured bottles is solved with this new process, which also allows to convert all the waste back into high-quality packaging. This technology breakthrough contributes to the viability of a fully circular plastic chain.
These innovations and technological progress lead to higher recycling rate, though still insufficient.
79% of waste remain in landfills or is dropped into the oceans, causing catastrophic environmental issues. How do plastic waste actually end up in the ocean? Three reasons: industrial leakage, microplastics that go down the drain and from our rubbish. This disaster is the consequence of the above-mentioned steps, and could be partly solved as solutions are brought along the chain. Other solutions may help resolve this water pollution issue:
Stormwater360, a New Zealand and Australia based company, is part of the answer. By developing water sensitive urban design solutions, Stormwater360 enables to collect, filter and treat stormwater (water originated from precipitations and snow/ice melting) to avoid stormwater runoff, which is a major cause for pollution. Sediments are screened, filtered, heavy metal is absorbed and evapotranspiration is enhanced, reducing the impact of stormwater runoff on the environment. Stormwater360 sells a wide range of products, able to catch silt-sized particles as small as two microns.
Very encouraging and promising projects are led in the world to clean the oceans and come up with durable solutions. The OceanCleanup, launched by a Dutch entrepreneur, develops advanced technologies to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and to scale up this model to clean all the world’s oceans thanks to a drifting floating system technology which will catch and concentrate the plastics debris. Other initiatives include 4Ocean, the Seabin project and PlasticOddyssey.
Today’s consumption/ production system will be coming to a dead-end so the shift towards a circular plastic economy is essential. Or, isn’t it more simple to start using other materials which are environmentally sustainable?