From the Arctic tundra to the top of Mount Everest to inside the human gut, plastics are quite literally everywhere.
Escalating plastic production, exclusively out of fossil fuels, is a dirty not-so-little secret — it rose from 2 million tons in 1950 to nearly 400 million tons in 2020. The consequences, from overflowing landfills to marine life death to negative human health impacts, are widely recognized, but action to address both the production and clean up the pollution still lags.
At GreenBiz’s annual conference on the circular economy, Circularity 22 this week in Atlanta, plastics experts and practitioners took the stage to discuss the ins and outs of the solutions to the plastics problem — and how to build the momentum to find success.
So what will it take? A systems-wide approach that redesigns how we use plastic in products and packaging, plus investment and behavior change toward recycling and disposal, all while centering people and planet. It's no easy task, but with the right tools, approaches and proof points, it’s all doable, according to experts speaking during a plenary session about how to move from ambition to accountability.
We're putting data in the hands of people that actually have the power to make decisions in their own communities in their own context with this information.
"We have the infrastructure for innovation for the future, not just the past," said Keefe Harrison, CEO of the nonprofit organization The Recycling Partnership. Harrison and other innovators are working on building that future today to set up the circular economy of tomorrow up for success.
Step 1: Get the right tools for the job
Understanding what’s happening at key places along the plastic values chain (chemical refinement, manufacturing, consumer products, disposal/recycling) — and what’s not happening — is key for designing and implementing mitigation measures at these levels.
Data can empower better decision-making at all levels. Taylor Maddalene, director of the Circularity Assessment Protocol at the University of Georgia, knows this firsthand. At her research lab, she’s been developing a data-driven tool called the Circularity Assessment Protocol. The resource tracks how materials move through a particular region, along seven components of circularity: use; collection; end-of-cycle; leakage; input; community; and product design.
"We're putting data in the hands of people that actually have the power to make decisions in their own communities in their own context with this information," she said. The team has assessed plastic waste everywhere from the Mississippi River Basin across the U.S. South and Midwest to the Ganges River in India.
It gives visibility into "what plastic waste especially is escaping the waste management system and entering the environment," she added, "really enabling informed decision-making in these different places. These tools advocate for different types of policy to drive behavior and push for proposals to get more infrastructure."
Digital platforms can also help both companies and communities understand how the plastic waste crisis affects them. Maddalene described a citizen science initiative called the Debris Tracker where concerned citizens can track litter around their communities. This open data collection paints the larger picture of the problem, which can then be used to informing policy and design specific upstream solutions.
In addition, Keefe brought up Plastics IQ, a tool that helps companies calculate how their plastic packaging strategy affects their plastic and carbon impact and offers actionable insights on how to use less plastic, redesign for reuse and recycling and be part of a circular economy.
Step 2: Work with communities
Another problem with the plastics waste crisis — like climate change — is that while its reach is global, its impacts are often seen at national and even local levels. Indeed, most solutions to tackle the waste, from plastics recycling to pollution, exist at these levels.
Harrison said that as an NGO, The Recycling Partnership also helps provide data on plastics recycling to communities. But what’s key is what the communities can do with this data. Roughly 9,000 localities in the U.S. alone have recycling programs, but many of their concerns are different.
"It's really hard to know what's happening in each of them because they all function independently," she said. She recently spoke with New England recycling coordinators whose top concerns were, "What do I do with animal carcasses? What do I do with exploding batteries? What do I do with paint?"
"Unless we meet those local coordinators where they are, all of our dreams of a circular system will not come into play," she said. "We have to clearly identify the challenges on the local level, marry them to the aspirational system, change goals and then do the hard work to bridge that gap — to bring it together."
Building local capacity and willpower means that more waste recycling and prevention programs will be successful in the long run.
When we talk about the plastics waste problem, we tend to focus upstream, on what brands are doing production. What role does the informal sector play in this global problem and solution?
Outside of the U.S., for example, recycling programs can look different. For Keiran Smith, CEO and co-founder of Mr. Green Africa, who works in Kenya, there’s a greater need to focus on the informal waste collection sector. Waste pickers, or individuals, groups and small businesses that collect and resell recyclable and reusable materials, are prevalent in many countries, especially across the Global South where waste collection hasn’t traditionally been structured.
"When we talk about the plastics waste problem, we tend to focus upstream, on what brands are doing production," he said. "What role does the informal sector play in this global problem and solution?"
The informal waste sector workers play a key role in recovering end-of-life materials, and paying them more to improve their working conditions and safety is a massive opportunity to curb plastic pollution.
Step 3: Learn from success stories around the world
Successful plastic waste management projects can provide blueprints for future projects and proof points to catalyze greater action. Smith described how Mr. Green Africa collaborated with Unilever on an innovative project to collect plastic and turn it into recycled plastic packaging materials.
"In east Africa, we were able to launch the first packaging in a home care application made out of 100 percent recycled material locally collected, locally recycled and locally made back into packaging," he said. "So full closed-loop system."
He credited the willingness of the corporate leadership team to lean into its commitments and quickly enable R&D teams, procurement teams and local workers to work on the project. "Now what it led to is other brand owners jumping on the same bandwagon and saying, ‘It's possible,’" he added. "We want the same thing."
Collaboration is key, he noted. Harrison and Maddalene agreed, stressing that solutions need to feed into each other throughout the system.
"It's really important to remember that this is a solvable issue," Maddalene said. "But it's going to take innovation in all of those buckets and between those buckets. I think one really important example that I always think of is, you can innovate a product that is 100 percent recyclable. It gets out in the market. Does that mean that there is a bin for someone to put it in? Does that person know to put it in that bin? Does the material recovery facility have a way of sorting that out? Is there an end market for that? The accountability goes through the whole chain."