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Innovating a sea change in reducing plastic waste

<p>Can companies and society innovate ways to reduce plastic waste? A diverse group last month in Rio set out to find out.</p>

The problem of proliferating plastic waste on land and in the ocean was one of the many focuses of last month’s Rio+20 conference. One side event, Plasticity, focused on how companies and their stakeholders can find solutions by scaling up new technologies, products and processes.

Global consumption of plastic exceeds 500 billion pounds annually. Many countries are just beginning to recycle significant amounts of plastic. The U.S. recovers less than 8 percent of plastic for recycling. Plastic particles and debris have been found in all parts of the ocean, including the five ocean gyres. Growing concern about plastic pollution in our environment was evident as avoiding ocean plastic was voted the top concern in a Rio+20 Sustainable Development Dialogue on Oceans, garnering more than 1 million votes from around the world.

While plastic poses a threat to brands whose products are viewed as litter on land, as well as a threat to marine life in the ocean, it also can be a positive opportunity for those companies willing to address the issue head-on. Plasticity Rio -- organized by Ocean Recovery Alliance, Republic of Everyone, and Applied Brilliance -- attracted 130 industry delegates, government leaders, educators, and innovators from 15 countries to envision a world where plastic is still used, but with a minimized environmental footprint.

Mike Biddle, president and founder of MBA Polymers, discussed his company’s pioneering efforts to recycle mixed plastics from complex waste streams. Less than 10 percent of plastics from durable goods are currently recycled, he said, while more than 90 percent of steel, copper and aluminum are recycled from the same waste streams. MBA is a leading producer of post-consumer recycled plastics from end-of-life durable goods using a process that requires less than 20 percent of the energy needed to produce virgin plastics. By mining mixed-plastics that were often not valued, MBA is creating new markets for materials at a fraction of the original cost to produce them and creating value for materials that are often thoughtlessly discarded, providing an incentive for their diversion into recycling streams.

Policies explored included increasing recycling of plastics through extended producer responsibility policies, alternative materials choices with a less harmful footprint than plastics, and innovative ways to use less plastic. Eben Bayer, CEO of Ecovative showed how agricultural wastes and mushroom fungus can be “grown” into solid molded packaging materials without the use of petrochemicals. Dell uses the mycelium-based molding as an alternative to polystyrene and polyethylene-based cushioning for its product packaging. The material breaks down naturally and can and be spread over gardens as compost. Also featured at Plasticity Rio was Replenish, a household cleaner that comes in a mostly empty plastic bottle with concentrate attached in a specially designed pod on the base. The consumer adds water and replaces the pod when it’s empty, but the bottle can be reused indefinitely. CEO Jason Foster said making Replenish uses 90 percent less plastic and oil than pre-mixed cleaners, and generates 90 percent less CO2. The full list of speakers can be found here.

“Plastic is great for many uses, but when we throw so much of it away it is bound to build up in our communities in ways that have negative impacts, and that is what we are seeing today around the world and in the ocean ecosystem,” said Doug Woodring, organizer of Plasticity and founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance. He hopes Plasticity will be seen as a turning point in transitioning post-consumer plastic from waste to a renewable resource with numerous business opportunities.

Waste as a resource was an underlying theme, with the challenge being at the municipal and infrastructure level to get materials back to the proper processors who can turn post-consumer materials back into feedstock for new materials. As You Sow discussed its effort to engage major users of plastic packaging to take responsibility for collection and recycling through extended producer responsibility policies. Alexa Kielty of the San Francisco Department of the Environment discussed the city’s success with composting, its 78 percent diversion rate, and its ambitious goal to get to zero waste by 2020.

Bioplastics were a hot area of discussion, already used in many new products. NatureWorks discussed its line of biopolymer-based low-carbon packaging and products. The challenge for the recycling industry, municipalities and consumers, is to know which materials go where after their intended use. Some bioplastics are meant to be recycled and can be mixed with the normal feedstock of petroleum based materials, while others are intended to be composted but must be more clearly marked so consumers can put them in the right bin.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition and Woodring’s Plastic Disclosure Project announced a new partnership and collaboration at the event to help college and school campuses in their efforts to reduce plastic pollution. The groups plan to engage 100 campuses in 10 countries to measure their plastic footprint. “Through understanding their plastic use and waste generation, universities and campuses will be able to take actionable and measureable steps towards plastic reduction,” said Woodring.

Photo courtesy of Plasticity.

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