The Future of Plastic: Zero-plastic or plastic-smart?

By Sophie van den Berg, solid waste expert and plastic recycling adviser at WASTE

 

With rapid population expansion and economic development, solid waste generation continues to grow at a fast pace, with plastic waste being the biggest polluter. This is putting pressure on resource availability as well as society’s ability to process and safely dispose of this material. In this article, we will explore the surprising benefits of the most wasteful material the world knows today, and how to deal with plastic waste in a sustainable way. 

The difficult to recycle, multi-layer plastic packaging abundant at street stalls in India.

Plastic soup

In developing countries, plastic waste is accumulating in the streets and rivers while waste dumps are filling up rapidly. The growing amount of plastic waste is one of the effects of the growing economy as the use of plastic bags increases and natural packing materials are replaced by plastic bags, food containers, cups and pots. One big waste problem everyone is talking about today is the so-called plastic soup–the litter floating in the oceans and affecting our marine life, the environment and our health. There is no denying that plastic is a major problem for the planet. In fact, in 30 years, researchers estimate that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish. With the way we are headed today, a great deal of our plastic will end up in dumpsites, turtle’s stomachs, and enter the human food chain as well.

 

No more plastic. Realistic or not?

There are widespread calls to get rid of plastic entirely: But should we not be using plastics anymore for anything? Indeed, we should all be mindful using plastic (e.g. do not buy water in plastic bottles, avoid the use of plastic single-use products and use reusable bags). But how realistic is it to not use plastic at all?

We would like to consider that: (a) plastic is a very useful material, and (b) people want affordable and conveniently sourced food on their table. In order to meet this desire, we have developed centralized food supply chains that criss-cross our countries and the oceans. To allow this global food supply chain to deliver food all over the world and that it is kept fresh, food needs to be packed in such a way that it can arrive without contamination (imagine the number of people who come into contact with food in the supply chain!) and with an increased shelf life. This is where plastic comes in. As a result of plastic packaging, you are now able to safely eat food from all over the world and for longer periods of time. Furthermore, if we would get rid of plastic today, it is safe to assume that the loss of our primary form of food packaging would make hundreds of thousands of people sick or starving within the year.  

At the same time, one of the reasons that plastic is so useful—its durability–is also its greatest challenge. Plastic does not degrade when disposed of. If we want to eliminate plastic, one option is to use different packaging. There are a number of great innovations on the rise, such as biodegradable and plant-based ‘plastic’ packaging. However, these new developments need time before they can take on the ease, price and scale of plastic packaging as we know it. On top of this, using these resources will place extra pressure on available land and water for a growing global population.

Another option is to reuse and recycle the plastic we are producing.

 

Our approach: green jobs and a circular economy

One of WASTE’s core focus areas, is in addressing the problems of resources scarcity, uncontrolled dumpsites, illegal garbage dumping and ‘plastic soup’ in innovative ways. In our projects, we work towards a solid waste management system for efficient waste collection, transportation and systematic waste disposal. We identify business opportunities in solid waste management to create green jobs. We continuously explore innovative recycling options and financing mechanisms to build sustainable solid waste systems.

We aim to create green jobs and local circular economies by optimizing sorting and collection of household waste, reduce usage of plastic, looking for alternatives and keeping plastic longer in the ‘loop’. To improve and scale plastic waste management systems in Asia and Africa, we use a multi-stakeholder approach—the Diamond Approach—to involve the entire value chain in plastic. We do so by:

  • Raising awareness about (avoiding) plastic waste, its health effects and source separation at household level;
  • Empower waste pickers (women and youth) to create new jobs;
  • Professionalizing the plastic recycling sector and introducing innovations;
  • Integrating local financial resources and developing new financing products; and
  • Setting up collaboration with governments and development partners to make scale happen.

As a result, we are improving the quality of (a) solid waste services and (b) recycled plastic, meanwhile boosting plastic recycling rates. We focus on building local capacities in facilitating plastic recycling loans to improve recycling infrastructure, plastic recycling business development, and waste segregation at source.

Our quest to solve local solid waste and plastic challenges has taken us all over the world—from India to Senegal and Peru. These experiences have provided us with the best examples of how we can develop scalable business models and technology solutions to reduce plastic packaging waste and encourage the recycling and re-purposing of plastic alternatives, instead of discarding them after one use.

 

Turning banana plastic film waste into corner boards in Peru

People like to eat bananas. In fact, bananas are one of the most preferred fruits in the world. But did you know that the production of your one banana requires an immense amount of plastic? Plastic bags are used in banana production for the major purposes: (a) to protect banana bunches from insects and mechanical damage in the field and (b) to enhance fruit development. While plastic items with value, such as PET bottles and rigid plastics (e.g. jerry cans, buckets) are generally collected and recycled, plastic film and bags do not have much value. This means they are hardly collected nor recycled and often end up littering the streets, rivers, seas and world.

In Peru, we work with a Dutch banana supplier, AgroFair, that imports fair trade and organic certified bananas to supply supermarkets in Europe. During the harvest of the bananas, the used plastic bags mostly end up in a garbage dump or are littered alongside the roads. In order to find a solution to this waste problem, we first assessed how much plastic is being generated, of which type, how much is collected and left behind? The next step was to find out if there is a market for the amount of plastic we had identified and develop a viable plastic recycling business plan. We came up with a solution: producing corner boards by recycling plastic bunch bags, similar to an example we saw in Ecuador. There is also the example of RECYPLAST, a huge plant in Costa Rica (a joint venture of banana companies DOLE and Del Monte) that recycles all banana plastic in the country. Now, this model should be introduced in Peru, adapted to the specific context of banana production and organisation of the country’s sector.

To tackle this plastic waste challenge, we teamed up with the team from Plastic Fantastic. It is Plastic Fantastic’s mission to bring plastic recycling as close as possible to the source—where the plastic is actually used and where the converted product can also be used. To make this work, they specialize in developing business cases based on low-cost conversion processes, so local businesses can benefit from this. The plastic waste recycling line consists of several machines that grind, extrude and press plastic into finished products–from roof tiles and chairs, to corner boards that hold together banana boxes.

 

For the Agrofair case, Plastic Fantastic’s entrepreneurs found a producer of small-scale and low-cost recycling units in China that can convert the plastic film used in the banana business into useful products. Luud Clercx from AgroFair explains that, “As fair trade and responsible company, those plastic bags were an eyesore for us every time we visited the banana cooperatives and associations we work with in Peru. They use millions of these banana plastic bunch bags per year. We were determined to find a way to solve this problem, which we did through our partnership with WASTE and Plastic Fantastic.”

 

To tackle the challenge, AgroFair formulated a project “From bunch bags to corner boards–recycling banana plastic” which will be co-financed by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) and the supermarket chain CACTUS CAFRUTA (Luxembourg). With these funds, six recycling lines can be placed in Peru, and two in the Dominican Republic. In this project, Plastic Fantastic will give technical assistance, while NGO Solidaridad will bring together and organize the producers’ organisations, and WASTE will play an advisory role in the awareness raising component as well as carry out a mid-term evaluation. With the technical assistance of Plastic Fantastic, the first recycling line has been placed at one of AgroFair’s banana suppliers, turning the plastic bags into these corner boards. “In addition to the plastic bags to protect the banana bunches, lots of plastic is used for corner boards—the plastic strips that protect the edges of palletized freight from possible damage during shipment and allow the banana boxes to be tied tightly together on the pallet. We never knew the solution to our plastic reuse challenge was so close to our core business.” Assigning value to the plastic waste at the banana farms is an important financial incentive for the producer organisations to join the project and to avoid that plastic ends up in the environment. On top of this, the costs saved by not having to buy new corner boards is partly financing the start-up costs of the project and is the foundation of the business case of the endeavor.

 

From cooperative to community project

Today, the partners are testing the first recycling line: learning how the machines work, training operators and developing the best functioning corner boards. Plastic Fantastic tells us how they always train local people to operate the machines, creating new, green jobs for the producer organisations. “Eventually the project will become an enterprise on its own.”

A further-reaching perspective of the project, however, lies in scaling the initiative, once the recycling of banana plastic is functioning well. Apart from processing the banana plantations’ plastic waste, local communities can be involved, recycling other plastic waste streams and turning these into products that the community needs (e.g. roof tiles, plastic building blocks for construction). This would be more challenging, as it involves many more stakeholders, including local governments, local communities, waste management companies and perhaps even a local university, whose needs and expectations need to be integrated. More financing would also be needed to make additional investments in machines that can make other products than corner boards.

This is where WASTE expertise can play a role, with a mid-term evaluation of the project. With our experience in rolling out sustainable, multi-stakeholder approaches, we can help with scaling the project to the community level and ensuring all partners are on board, understanding their respective roles and responsibilities in the new plastic recycling system. A specific focus area in this second phase of the project includes involving the local government through integration with their waste management system. The recycling lines have capacity to recycle part of the plastic waste coming from households in the municipality. When it comes to putting in place rules and regulations (or getting permits for new waste sorting and recycling sites), involvement of the local government is essential. Furthermore, setting up an awareness campaign with local NGOs in the communities on solid waste management is a matter of attention.

 

Can India lead the way in Asia to become plastic-smart?

India is a country in transition when it comes to solid waste management. Per a new government initiative, by 2022, all cities must have implemented a solid waste management system with source segregation (dry and wet waste). Urgency is high, with increasing numbers of people migrating to the cities and an enormous amount of waste generated every day, from its impressive 1.3 billion and growing population. Waste dumps are filling up quickly and space to construct new ones is limited. Many cities struggle with managing their waste, trying to implement a sustainable and cost-effective collection-, sorting- and treatment system. Indian communities are often also not used to paying for waste collection. Culturally, it is often seen as a service that needs to be provided by the municipality.

In India, we are therefore partnering with cities to reduce plastic use and to redesign and improve management of plastics as part of our FINILOOP program.

  • Reduction of plastics: India leads the way in implementing a ban on single-use plastics and promoting alternatives for plastics. For example, all airports in India are single-use plastic free. We support cities to develop models relevant to their city’s context.
  • Redesign of plastics: This means starting to think about the recyclability of plastic already at the beginning design stage of the plastic product, including producing plastics with less additives, no combination of plastics, and taking into account the usage of the packaging. For example: Is multi-layer packaging really required? Or can a less complex material have the same function? We see that innovations are on their way to the market. Consider our FINILOOP partner, Polyplex, an Indian multinational and 4th largest manufacturer of thin polyester film, which is being used for various food packaging and industrial applications. Polyplex is doing research into manufacturing packaging solutions that are of the same polymer family structure to make the packaging more recyclable.
  • Managing plastic waste: cleaning up oceans, rivers or cities cannot be seen as separate from solid waste management in cities. To prevent the leakage of plastic waste into nature, waterways and oceans, we need to improve the collection of solid waste in cities, especially the plastic waste. Effective waste management models are still scarce in India, but the learning curve is steep.

 

Udaipur Lake City: Plastic waste free

A great example of a program where our approach to plastic waste management comes together is the Udaipur Municipal Solid Waste Management project with focus on plastic, run by our partner FINISH Society in India. In September 2018, we started the collection of solid waste from 16,500 households in 15 wards of Udaipur—waste that was normally dumped together in large street containers and immediately brought to garbage dumps. Seventeen vehicles are used to implement door-to-door collection of segregated dry and wet waste and then to transport this waste to a designated site for further sorting and composting. Less than a year later, a so-called Zero Waste Center is fully operational.

An assessment of the solid waste management collection and treatment system in the community has showed impressive results to date:

  • Since 2018, 2,000 MT of solid waste was handled (including 1,200 MT inorganic waste).
  • Sales of 600 MT recyclables in the city of Udaipur and another 600 MT of other non-recyclable waste ended at cement kilns, ensuring almost zero landfill.
  • Supporting sustainable employment of almost 65 green workers.
  • High satisfaction of the served residents and trust in the established system with a feedback system in place and a helpline for complaints implemented.
  • Residents are pleased with the cleaner environment of their neighborhood.
  • High-level of awareness regarding source segregation and high participation of residents whom practice source segregation (est. 85% of residents segregate their waste).
  • A waste management service fee is being paid by the residents.

One of the drivers of program’s success is the extensive awareness program, in which how and why Udaipur’s residents should segregate their waste into wet waste and dry waste. While using the slogan, “My waste, my responsibility”, we have created awareness through community meetings, door-to-door visits, street theater, and spreading leaflets and demonstrations by community workers. To educate people about source segregation, we used a “direct control and correction” approach: when people made mistakes in segregation, we immediately explained how to improve, when they handed over their waste to the collection vehicle.

Based on the great results of the program, we are now expanding to the whole city of Udaipur and more cities in the region.  In the following interview, the lead from FINILOOP’s Indian partner FINISH Society, Saurabh Agnihotri, tells us more about this.

 

Saurabh Agniotri explaining the importance of source segregation to the community.

 

 

WASTE: What approach are you taking to roll out the program in other cities? 

SA: Over the years, we have developed a decent understanding of plastics types and quantities. At the same time, we learned a lot from the international experience of WASTE, enabling us to link the different waste recycling streams in the Zero Waste Center. Connecting the knowledge and experience in both domains and having in place a proof of concept in Udaipur, forms the foundation for our expansion plans.

At this center, we can demonstrate our innovative methods and models and also test which method works best in different contexts. As you can imagine, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as there are differences in waste volumes, geographical conditions and distance from the recycling industry. For example, today we are working on how to reduce the collection costs for small material recovery facilities. This way, we can also roll out the program in rural and semi-urban locations. It is our idea to display different low scale, middle scale and high scale solutions at the Zero Waste Center so all visitors will find something to relate to and introduce in their own city or municipality. This is the ultimate form of scaling up our solutions.

 

WASTE: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you see in scaling up? 

SA: There are challenges on different levels: changing the mindset of the people, the lack of working capital for community engagement, and the costs of our business model. More important than these challenges however, are the opportunities. We see a large amount of waste from households and commercial areas in various cities in the region. From our perspective, this waste is a valuable resource we can create a market for.

Also, there is tremendous potential for job creation and setting up local enterprises in the waste management sector if we manage to shift from traditional ways of hoarding and aggregation only, to a source-segregation and zero-waste-model. With our approach, we can bring in necessary financial streams that can be used by municipalities and sanitary workers to improve civic amenities.

 

WASTE: Can you explain more about potential innovative solutions or models that can be used, also in scaling up the project? 

SA: Local plastic recycling–especially mechanical recycling—has great potential for municipalities and entrepreneurs in the waste sector. Mostly recycling is currently limited to large towns. The waste that is being brought here often brings limited financial incentives for the waste pickers and workers of these facilities. With our source segregation model, we offer interesting value-adding opportunities for waste entrepreneurs–either in up-cycling products directly for consumers or recycling waste for higher industrial consumption. With small additions and modifications, we can almost triple the revenues from waste streams including plastic waste. With these innovations we can attract more commercial funding and partners throughout the waste value chain. From waste collection and transportation to waste processing.

 

Do you have questions or ideas for collaborating? Contact Sophie van den Berg, solid waste expert and plastic recycling adviser at WASTE <svdberg[at]waste.nl>

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