The Problem (& potential solutions) of Plastic Waste

The growing problem of plastic waste is nothing new. We’ve all heard stories of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and even seen with our own eyes the endless stream of plastic bags flying by on a windy day. But the stories are increasing in frequency, and the scientific studies quantifying the volumes of waste are getting better constrained. Public awareness of the problem is growing. The big question is “What do we do about it?”

Effective solutions to a global problem can seem like an impossible goal. But you have to start somewhere if you want to effect change. Citizens, communities, non-profits, corporations, and governments alike are working towards the common goal of reducing the problem of plastic waste. Local groups, such as Master Recyclers help with community efforts to reduce plastic waste, while non-profits and corporations sponsor large scale efforts such as the Ocean Cleanup plastic boom deployed to the North Pacific gyre. Governments can enact taxes such as Washington D.C.’s 5 cent per bag fee, or outright bans on plastic bags such as in Austin, TX and Seattle, WA. The Government of Kenya banned all plastic bags in 2017 with the penalty for violation being 4 years in prison!

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Identifying the problem of plastic waste isn’t difficult, NPR has dedicated an entire series to the subject. You can find many engaging articles at: https://www.npr.org/series/684530164/the-plastic-tide. One of those articles highlights an individual who is having a large-scale effect on the problem in the Philippines. His name is Froilan Grate and he is a native Filipino who became disheartened when he moved to Manila for college from his rural home and was confronted first hand with the overwhelming volume of plastic waste that pervades Manila Bay. He set out to do something about it, first by changing his individual habits to eliminate plastic waste, and then expanding those efforts to involve entire communities to take action. With the support of non-profits like GAIA, he organized community clean-ups that included something new, brand audits. Now, when community volunteers perform clean-ups, they categorize and quantify the waste by type and brand and then publish their results. While this sort of public shaming doesn’t typically work to change individual behaviors, it eventually garnered the attention of the multi-national corporations whose bottom line depends on their brand names. This led to Froilan being invited to Washington D.C. to participate in a round-table discussion on the global problem of plastic waste with some of the very companies he was shaming with his brand audits. You can read more of his inspiring story at: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/15/683734379/an-island-crusader-takes-on-the-big-brands-behind-plastic-waste

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Another effort you may have heard about is The Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious goal of cleaning up the North Pacific Gyre using a 2000 ft long boom to collect floating plastic debris. The Ocean Cleanup is a non-governmental organization founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat which has received enormous funding from national governments, the U.N., and private corporations. One reason the project has received so much support is that it can deliver easily understandable results. By measuring firsthand the amount of waste being removed from the ocean, it’s easy to see the effect of the project. The boom was launched last September from San Francisco and after being deployed, has captured 2 metric tons of plastic waste. Unfortunately, the real world and the ocean in particular is a tough environment for any new design to perform in, and after 2 and a half months in service the boom was damaged to the point that it needed to be removed for repairs. It’s currently in Hawaii undergoing repairs and modifications to help it perform better. You can read more about the project at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/04/a-grand-plan-to-clean-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch

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Businesses and corporations have a unique and very powerful way to change how we all use plastic products. By adopting a materials management approach to their products, and committing to responsibly produce AND dispose of their products, businesses can provide a model for others to follow which proves that sustainability and profits are not mutually exclusive. One example of this is COSTA Sunglasses, who have recently launched a line of sunglasses whose frames are made from discarded plastic fishing nets. They didn’t stop there though, the glass, aluminum, and even the foam nose pads are made from recycled materials and designed to be recovered and recycled again at the end of their useful lifespan. Simply return your old glasses and they will disassemble them and recycle the individual components. By partnering with suppliers who sell recycled materials, they are helping markets grow. From the fisherman who are incentivized to recover and sell their damaged nets, to consumers who purchase the products, the materials loop is closing and keeping discards out of the landfill and the environment. COSTA was recently awarded a Sustainability Award from REI for their innovative products. You can read more at: https://www.rei.com/blog/news/costa-makes-100-percent-recyclable-sunglasses

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Governments have the ability to have the largest effect on the problem of plastic waste through legislation and regulation. Unfortunately, many governments (from local to national) don’t have the will and/or funding to adequately tackle the problem. Some governments are actually prevented from addressing the problem through preemption laws such as we have in Arizona. In 2015 the Arizona Legislature passed a law stating that local governments cannot regulate the sale and use of plastic bags. This has had a particular affect here in Flagstaff, where the local community wants to regulate plastic bags but we don’t have the ability to do so. At present, we can only compel businesses to engage in voluntary efforts to reduce plastic bags. One local government, the City of Baltimore, has partnered with a non-profit organization, the Waterfront Partnership to launch a low-cost solution to the problem of litter and debris flowing into Chesapeake Bay from the area’s tributary rivers. The Trash Wheel Project utilizes the river’s current to turn a water wheel, which in turn propels a conveyor belt that gathers all the floating debris the river is carrying before it empties into the Bay. A solar panel array powers the wheel when the current isn’t strong enough. The local community has embraced the project, and it has expanded to 3 locations which have adopted lives of their own. Dubbed Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, and Captain Trash Wheel, they have developed loyal followings and even have their own Twitter feeds! Despite being low-technology solutions, they are actually quite effective and extremely cost-efficient. Since their deployment in 2014, the Trash Wheels have collected over 750,000 plastic bottles, 900,000 styrofoam containers, and 500,000 grocery bags. All of those materials were bound for the ocean, but are instead diverted to waste-to-energy power plants that provide electricity to the area. This is a great example of local action having a significant effect on a global problem. You can learn more about Mr. Trash Wheel here: https://www.baltimorewaterfront.com/healthy-harbor/water-wheel/

The problem of plastic waste is a global one that affects all living things. But solutions to this problem exist at all scales, from the individual who reduces their use of single-use plastics, to multi-national corporations who innovate alternative materials and processes. Master Recyclers can play an integral role in helping convey information and solutions to their communities.