For the first time at large international environmental event, plastic was the focus of discussion for a day-long event called Plasticity Rioas part of the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The event, organized by Ocean Recovery Alliance, Republic of Everyone, and Applied Brilliance, attracted over130 industry delegates, government leaders, educators, and innovators from more than 15 countries to re-think modern society’s relationship with plastic.
The discussion provided a pragmatic roadmap to a world with plastics re-imagined – where more informed decisions are made on when the very use of plastics is appropriate, and inappropriate; where those plastics which are used are renewably sourced with smaller environmental footprint, and where plastics after use, are regarded as a valuable resource opportunity, rather than as waste –all this benefiting the environment, and the ocean as a result.
The conference brought together international experts in their respective fields to create a broad, collaborative discussion on the opportunities that exist when plastic packaging and products are consideredas a valuable material source rather than as a “waste” stream, how bioplastics are less carbon intensive, how they can be recycled, and how extended producer responsibility can help to capture value, build brand loyalty, and even how innovators can approach funding sources.
“While we organized the conference with a clear agenda around materials, recycling and design”, said event co-organizer Doug Woodring of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, “ It’s fair to say that we left the conference with a far more holistic, bigger picture view of how to capture the opportunities and redress the issues with plastics than most expected,”Woodring explained – “truly capturing the value that plastics can bring is going to take a multidimensional approach that considers first, where the use of plastics is truly appropriate, and next, the whole plastics life cycle, starting with what it’s made from, how it’s made, and finally, how we capture the value in theplastic material stream after use”.
Woodring points to how the forum speakers illustrated each of these points, in a discussion that involved lively audience participation.
Plastics – “To use or not to use”
• Jason Foster, CEO of Replenish illustrated the success possible by rethinking the underlying product design premise. Replenish supplies a refillable plastic container and refill concentrate cartridges. This both drastically reducing the amount of plastic consumed, as well as the amount of water that is being shipped, a double win
• Daniella Russo of the Plastics Pollution Coalition – Don’t use if you don’t need to, but when you do, use re-useable products not disposable ones.
Re-assessing “where plastics come from”
• Eben Bayer CEO of Ecovative Design described his company’s success in replacing foamed polystyrene with mushroom mycelium, a natural, renewable source material that can be actually grown in the shape of the product it is intended. This is a material that degrades in the environment just like leaves.
• Steve Davies of NatureWorks talked about the benefits of sourcing Ingeo plastics from renewable plant materials which not only has a lower carbon footprint than comparable plastics, but offer a host of end of life options.
Where plastics go – Recycling and Beyond:
• Mike Biddle of MBA Polymers spoke of how value can be created from any type of plastic via automated sorting technology which allows for the provision of pure feedstock streams of material, regardless of mixed batches, which typically made it very hard for recycling to occur.
• Alexa Kielty, who manages Residential Zero Waste for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, illustrated how designing for the environment meant in her case, designing not for recycling, but rather, designing for compost, to enable the diversion of organics (food and yard waste) from landfill, and avoiding the associated methane generation and climate impact had those materials gone to landfill.
“I left the conference feeling that the big idea of for the new generation of plastics is “designing for the environment” and that this was truly taking hold amongst innovators,” said one of the conferences presenters, Steve Davies, director public affairs for NatureWorks. “Designing for the environment means envisioning plastic products that contribute to lower impacts in a myriad of ways from sourcing sustainable materials to inventing new materials, to establishing whole new ways of recapturing the value in these materials.”
Plastics as a Resource, not as Waste
Plasticity at the Rio+20 Earth Summit marks a turning point in the way that we can approach the “plastic resource” opportunity as exactly that, a big opportunity. Now is the time to scale-up these technologies, products and processes, to the benefit of brands, companies, and municipalities who understand where the improvements can be made in a new world of resource management thinking,” said Doug Woodring,.
Waste as a resource was an underlying theme, with the challenge being at the municipal and infrastructure level to get the raw material to the proper technology operators who can turn trash into cash. With new sorting technologies, like those of MBA Polymers, virtually any type of plastic can be recovered and turned into its own, pure, feedstock stream, creating value for those companies who want to increase the amount of recycled material in their products. Consumers are also demanding these products in larger quantities, knowing that recycled material uses less energy and carbon, while helping to keep waste out of our ecosystem and ocean.
In the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, over 1,000,000 people from around the world voted on the top 10 issues to restore the health of the ocean, and the top result of the vote was plastic pollution. Previous figures by the Ocean Conservancy have shown that over 270 species of ocean animals have been impacted by plastic, and that number has now been shown to be over 700 species from new data collected.
The goal of Plasticity was to bring out some of the best new solutions that are already on the market, or processes that are available for governments, companies and communities, so that these impacts can be reduced, while creating jobs and improved living environments along the way.
“While we all came from different perspectives and ideas, we all agreed that the ‘future we want’ is NOT the status quo – and that there are much more sustainable ways of dealing with the use and re-use of this valuable material compared with the prevalent one-way use today,” said Mike Biddle, President and Founder of MBA Polymers, and winner of the coveted Gothenburg Award.
Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director of As You Sow, said, “the link between poor recycling practices and ocean plastic has resulted in more than 60 cities in California and 100 cities in the U.S. banning or restricting use of expanded polystyrene food packaging, and another 28 California municipalities banning plastic take-out bags. New packaging commonly enters the marketplace without sufficient consideration of and design for its recyclability.
Companies that market globally need to factor the lack of recycling infrastructure into marketing plans for both developed and less developed countries.” “This is an opportunity for those who get it right, and can create expanded customer loyalty along the way,” said Woodring.
“The great responsibility of our generation will be to deal with the proliferation of plastic. The path forward is to innovate and become better stewards of all natural resources.Plasticity is helping to provide the leadership and vision to get us there,” says Jason Foster, Founder of Replenish.
“The Plasticity Forum was an excellent opportunity to learn from the world’s leading experts working to reduce marine plastic pollution at its source. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is highlighting these source reduction techniques on a new platform – the Global Goal and Commitment to Stop Plastic Pollution — at www.stopplasticpollution.org.
his valuable convening of experts from government, business, and civil society will support the implementation of the Rio+20 outcomes document, which includes a landmark focus on plastic waste as one of the most harmful forms of pollution entering our oceans from land,” said Frances Beinecke, President of the NRDC.
A number of commitments and programs were announced at the event, including an alliance between the Plastic Pollution Coalition (www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org) and the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) (www.plasticdisclosure.org) to work together with university campuses around the world to reduce their plastic footprints, and channelling the plastic waste that is created into resource-use opportunities.
The University of California, Berkeley, is the first university to announce their use of the PDP for their campus waste management strategy. The Pacific Vortex Challenge also made its global launch at Plasticity, announcing an ultra-extreme “dream team” relay swimming race from Hawaii to California, through the North Pacific Gyre, to raise awareness of the issue of plastic in the ocean.