May 14, 2019
The dystopian stories are all over the news. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) “covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.” Microplastics have been found by scientists “ in the vast majority of marine samples” collected. Most recently, airborne microplastics have been found in great numbers in remote locations, far from any city. And because the manufacturing of virgin plastics requires fossil fuels, insufficient rates of plastics recycling contribute to the exacerbation of climate change.
Efforts are now being made to thwart some of the most prominent examples of plastics pollution. Throughout the world, municipalities and even entire countries have banned single-use plastic bags and plastic straws. But the reliance on plastic is so ubiquitous that such bans, while salutary, will not in themselves have sufficient impact to reverse a tide that is damaging to our oceans, our food supplies, and the planetary climate.
A recent report from the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners identifies technological developments from scores of sources that offer potential solutions to the crisis. While most of those technologies that transform waste plastic back into plastic, rather than convert waste plastic to fuel, are still in the lab stage of maturity, the science behind their early efforts is solid. Investors and brands, the report finds, are increasingly supportive of these efforts.
“We’re excited to provide the first comprehensive and accessible report that maps out the existing technology providers that are transforming plastics waste,” said Bridget Croke, VP of External Affairs at Closed Loop Partners. “It’s important for people to see that this is possible, and in fact probable; we can tackle plastic pollution with a combination of various innovative technologies that already exists.”
One challenge, the report finds, should come as no surprise to those of us in the recycling community: it begins at the local level. Even as the demand for plastics is expected to grow over the coming decades, the “current supply of recycled plastics meets just 6% of demand… The U.S. and Canada sends 34 million tons of plastics to landfills or incinerators each year.” The increasing complexity of plastic materials such as flexible packaging can confound even the well-meaning recycler; furthermore, “embedded costs [of recycling] today cannot compete with world-scale plastics manufacturing.”
Perhaps the magic bullet for substantially improving recycling rates has yet to be discovered, but the report argues that bringing to scale the technological solutions described therein will in itself dramatically increase the demand for recycled plastics. The data-driven pages of the report reward a close reading, and stakeholders are encouraged to visit the website of Closed Loop Partners to grasp the degree to which the transformation of the plastics supply change has such potential.
Not only potential, but impact: some companies that have progressed beyond the lab stage developed solutions even before the plastics pollution crisis became mainstream news. The report quotes CEO Jocelyn Doucet of Pyrowave, a Canadian company that uses microwave to make virgin polymers and packaging from recycled plastics: “We’ve put 10 years of work into bootstrapping the technology at a time when plastic pollution was not very much debated, but still a fast growing environmental crisis. Our initial vision 10 years ago is now giving us a very good shot at solving this problem.”
So at this juncture, with plastics pollution having become a global crisis, what can be done to further encourage these nascent technologies to reach effective scale? Closed Loop Partners offers three solutions, based on the findings of its report:
- Invest: Investors, brands, and industry must urgently invest to bring transformational technologies to scale;
- Educate: Increasing awareness and adopting shared terminology and understanding of these technologies will make them more accessible to a wider audience; and
- Collaborate: Brands and industry need to develop partnerships with technology providers to create new business models that will match the current technologies with the infrastructure of plastics and petrochemical manufacturing, waste management and recycling.
“Changing the system will only be successful if investments in transformational technologies are made alongside shifts in behavior, infrastructure, and economic incentives of multiple actors,” the report concludes. “If all of these shifts occur, we can accelerate solutions at scale in North America.”
By Robert Kropp, NERC Office Manager