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Plasticity focuses on the next life of plastics

By: Gayle S. Putrich

July 3, 2014

NEW YORK — More often than not, debates about end-of-life problems with plastic results in industry vs. environmentalist finger-pointing, stalemates — and no viable solutions.

But not at the Plasticity Forum.

The one-day event examining the future of plastic, held June 24 at Tribeca Rooftop in New York, brought together would-be opponents for a day of collaboration and discussion on how to treat plastic as a resource and not waste.

The third annual event moved to the United States for the first time, after an inaugural conference in Rio de Janeiro at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and a 2013 event in Hong Kong. A project of the Ocean Recovery Alliance and the Republic of Everyone, the Plasticity Forum aims to bring together leaders to collaborate to help scale up some of the great solutions now coming to market, the organizers say, and to showcase sustainable solutions and market opportunities for transforming all types of plastic “one through seven” into a valuable resource.

“This year’s Plasticity Forum marks a new chapter in collaborative action between industry, governments and communities in banding together to scale solutions that can really drive mindset changes in how we perceive plastic in a new form, that of the resource that it truly is,” said Doug Woodring, founder of the event and Ocean Recovery Alliance. “By no means is this an easy challenge to address, but leaders at this event are some of the real trail blazers who know how to deliver solutions that we can all participate in, and benefit from, in our respective communities.”

Architect, author of Cradle to Cradle and self-styled sustainability guru William McDonough challenged attendees expand their thinking beyond the traditional Rs of “reduce , reuse, recycle,” to include “redesign, renew and regenerate.”

“We have to stop thinking about, using the phrase ‘end of life’ with our plastic products. It goes in, it continues, it becomes something new. Let’s move on, let’s make it ‘next life,’” McDonough said in his keynote address, encouraging plastics processors and trade associations such as event sponsors the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the American Chemistry Council to consider products’ potential next life on the front end, even in the design phases.

The conference brought together innovators from around the world to share their “next life” plans for plastics, including Arthur Huang co-founder and managing director of Miniwiz, a Taipei, Taiwan-based company dedicated to upcycling trash to create versatile, high-performance and low-carbon materials suitable for uses ranging from buildings to consumer products.

Infrastructure has been key to Miniwiz’s successes, Huang said.

“We’ve been blessed with infrastructure [in Taiwan],” he said. “We are also blessed with all the trash from the United States and the rest of the world.”

While necessity may have been the mother of invention for Miniwiz, Huang also noted that sticking to the old adages of production and marketing have also been part of his success.

“Whatever you’re going to make, it has to be sexy,” Huang said. “How can we sell trash? As long as something is sexy, people will buy it.”

Bringing sexy back for plastic waste isn’t easy, other speakers noted, but it is possible.

“Let designers be creative and you’ll be surprised what they come up with,” said Stephan Clambaneva of the Industrial Designers Society of America, who joined Huang on a panel.

The fashion industry is plenty sexy and plastics are making inroads in fabrics, said Waste2Wear founder and CEO Monique Maissan.

“This is not something new. This is not something we invented. We took it to another level,” she said.

Making recycled plastic threads thinner and blending them with other fibers upped their sex appeal, she said, and makes the fabric industry, long known as a major polluter, that much more Earth-friendly. And with operations in countries where plastic pollution and poverty are serious problems, Maissan is helping.

“The livelihoods of 12 million women in India depend on hand looms,” the textile engineer said. “We are helping them improving their lives with plastic blended fabrics.”

There are, of course, in the modern world, few things sexier than making money. And Plasticity speakers urged attendees to change their mindset — and to help others to the same — when it comes to money and plastic waste.

“There’s a credible case that investing in sustainable plastic practices yields net-positive economic development,” said Steve Rochlin, cofounder and senior partner of IO Sustainability.

Not sexy enough?

How about Mike Biddle’s assertion that “there’s money to be made” in plastic waste? Biddle would know. The founder of MBA Polymers Inc., he has spent much of his 35 years in the plastics industry as an evangelist for the value of retrieving difficult-to-recycle plastics.

David Katz, entrepreneur and founder of the Plastic Bank, an effort to clean up the planet and empower the poor simultaneously by creating an international currency exchange using plastic waste, believes there is a perception problem and it’s up to people to change it.

Plastic has more pound-for-pound value than steel, said Katz and Plasticity organizers. But it’s up to the industry to remind the rest of the world of that value and then capitalize on it.

“I think it’s humans that have caused this problem,” Katz said. “And humans that can solve it.”