Innovative solutions to reduce plastic waste come in all shapes and sizes — but how do we combat the issue without taking plastic products away from those who need them most for everyday living?
Eight million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year, and countless studies on its impact and unsettling images are spurring consumers and NGOs to push for action. As a result, businesses and governments worldwide have implemented bans on single-use plastic items, such as straws and bags. But do bans actually address the plastic pollution issue? Unfortunately, no — as an industry we need to do more.
While plastic has many valuable uses we rely on — from creating medical devices and safety helmets to food packaging that prevents waste — there are occasions when other materials are more effective for the job in hand. So, how do we strike a balance? How do we combat the rise in plastic waste without taking plastic products away from those who need them most for everyday living? We can and should focus on driving a circular economy — by recycling our plastic waste and innovating to repurpose and reuse it.
Driving a circular economy
We currently live in a primarily linear economy, where the goods we use every day are manufactured, sold, used and then discarded as waste. To move away from this wastefulness, we need to transition to an economy that redesigns, recycles, reuses and remanufactures to keep materials at their highest-value use for as long as possible, and out of our oceans.
The good news is, industry is already taking steps to advance a circular economy globally by developing innovative technologies to improve recyclability and designing in reusability and recycled content into products, while building the infrastructure required to responsibly manage waste where it is needed most.
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For example, Dow and other companies continue to evaluate advanced technologies such as feedstock recycling — which, if successful, will enable more waste to be recycled and ultimately enable plastics to be recycled back to its basic molecules. This capability would reduce the need for additional fossil fuel extraction by using waste plastics as a feedstock.
Innovation in action
As part of Dow’s 2025 sustainability goals, I’m proud that we are doing our part by developing initiatives that convert plastic waste into next-generation building materials, including plastic schools. We are partnering with Colombian nonprofit Conceptos Plásticos to build schools in Colombia using bricks made of plastic waste — to date, we have built three schools using 12 tons of plastic waste, and plan to build 15 by the end of 2019. We also started the Hefty® EnergyBag® recovery initiative which collects hard-to-recycle plastics and converts them into valuable resources. By 2018, we’d collected more than 176,500 bags and diverted more than 115 tons of plastics from landfills, equivalent to roughly 92 million snack-sized chip bags.
Beyond Dow, companies, innovators and entrepreneurs are taking significant action to explore opportunities to repurpose, reimagine and redefine how we use and dispose of plastic. Here are three notable examples:
TerraCycle’s Loop platform, unveiled earlier this year, is developing circular solutions for hard-to-recycle materials and is the first of its kind to offer hundreds of name-brand products in reusable and refillable packaging. UPS will deliver the products in reusable shipping bags and transport the bags to a cleaning facility once done, where they will be sanitized and recycled. In addition to founding investors Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, major global brands such as PepsiCo, Unilever and The Body Shop are among the initial partners that have designed new packaging for Loop.
Circulate Capital is an impact-focused investment management firm dedicated to financing innovation, companies and infrastructure that prevent the flow of plastic waste into the world's oceans while advancing the circular economy. In late 2018, it announced over US$100 million in expected funding to combat ocean plastic from major brands, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow, Danone, Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company.
Norwegian startup Empower uses a blockchain-enabled system to encourage customers to reduce plastic pollution. Through technology, the company records the waste brought to collection centers to reward those who bring it in — for every batch of plastic donated, the person is rewarded $1. Founder Wilhelm Myrer believes that the system — which is based on the philosophy and success of the Norwegian plastic bottle deposit system — can be used in the industrialized world, but will be particularly effective in emerging markets, where he says tokenized rewards can be a catalyst for engagement.
What these three examples highlight, along with Dow’s own efforts, is that innovative solutions to reduce plastic waste come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one consistent goal. The plastic waste issue has attracted significant global attention as major brands from around the world are investing their time and resources into finding solutions.
Looking ahead, I anticipate that, as researchers continue to unveil the extent of plastic litter, we will see a rise in the number of new technologies and innovations. As an industry, we need to welcome new ideas and collaboration to continue to create solutions that make a greater impact in reducing the plastic waste infiltrating our oceans. It will take all of us — business, government, industry and NGOs — to create solutions and work together to solve one of today’s biggest environmental crises.