By helping to incentivize, develop and scale circular and environmentally beneficial projects, we can maximize the value of waste, empower communities and create a more sustainable future.
Poor waste management infrastructure is a major contributor to global plastic pollution, and the situation is getting worse. Inundated by plastic waste, countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia recently announced that they will no longer accept plastic waste imports. Meanwhile, rising costs are forcing some municipalities in the United States to suspend recycling programs.
While some countries have taken measures to cut down on waste, it’s not enough. We need to fundamentally change our approach to consumption, moving from a linear system that consumes and disposes of plastics, to a circular economy that reuses and repurposes these materials, generating new value for society. An important part of this shift will be developing and piloting replicable frameworks for circular innovation that will empower communities around the world to achieve zero-waste, particularly those that are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution.
We’re already seeing momentum in pockets of society. On an industry level, companies are beginning to respond to consumer demands for environmental sustainability by adopting circular business models and developing innovative products that reduce waste. We’re also witnessing instances of communities leveraging zero-waste models to convert plastic waste into valuable resources, particularly in parts of the developing world.
One example is Project MASARO, a unique collaboration between Dow and Professor Zainal Abidin of the Bandung Institute of Technology, which is working to create closed-loop, circular economies for waste in Indonesia. MASARO, which is Indonesian for “zero waste,” applies locally available technologies to turn post-consumer plastic into valuable byproducts for use in agriculture, farming and energy. In an initial pilot at a boarding school in West Java, participants collected and converted 8,800 pounds of plastic waste into 8,800 liters of fertilizer and 90 liters of fuel, which have been sold or used to benefit the community. The initiative has also trained more than 2,000 students and teachers in proper recycling and waste management behaviors, with the goal of training 12,000 individuals in the area. If implemented globally, this framework could reduce costs for local governments and relieve some of the burden on global recycling infrastructures.
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Similarly, we’ve partnered with NGOs in Brazil on Recycling for a Change to develop a professional development and strategic support model that is enabling waste-picker cooperatives to become more sustainable and profitable; while benefiting individuals, families and communities. On average, we aim to increase participating waste pickers’ monthly income from R$700 (~US$169) to R$2,000 (~US$480). In its current form, the initiative has the potential to benefit hundreds of families along the waste management value chain — but the economic and environmental impact would be even greater if scaled to other parts of Latin America and the developing world.
For the moment, these initiatives are in the pilot stages. However, governments, NGOs and corporations can help to scale these frameworks and pave the way for broader adoption of circular economy practices. If similar practices were adopted in other regions of the world, it would set the stage for widespread social and environmental change, empowering organizations to address major global challenges such as plastic pollution, poor infrastructure or unequal access to education. Companies in the plastics value chain have an important role to play in supporting these efforts, since we have the resources, partner ecosystem, and technological expertise to create, scale and tailor circular frameworks to meet the unique needs of different communities.
At Dow, we’re dedicated to achieving a circular economy, but the plastic industry can’t reach this goal alone. It’s imperative we all work together, leveraging expertise from governments, corporations, NGOs, academics and consumers from around the world. By helping to incentivize, develop and scale circular and environmentally beneficial projects such as MASARO and Recycling for a Change, we can maximize the value of waste, empower communities and create a more sustainable future.