Product manufacturers and brands have long recognized that plastic is one of the most effective and valuable materials in the market, due to it's cost, durability and ability to be formed into so many shapes and sizes. However, as technology improves, and polymer varieties increase, including with nano-materials, so too does consumption, as well as complexity for recovery.
As a result, many also recognize that plastic has an image problem, largely linked to its ubiquitous nature, and to its propensity to be used to make disposable, single-use products. This tends to be further exacerbated by the sloppy habits of many people who tend to irresponsibly discard waste materials, or by the lack of infrastructure to properly recover, convert and reuse much of that waste in other viable applications.
Take, for example, the recent study by the University of Georgia's College of Engineering, which found between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within roughly 30 miles of the coastline. Globally, some 280 million tons of plastic is produced annually, yet estimates suggest that only 10 percent is actually recycled. Capturing this waste stream presents a significant and untapped business opportunity, as does the redesign of packaging and the thought process around waste recovery and resource maximization.
As the world's population grows, a rapidly mobile and financially stable middle class is emerging in much of the world. Those people become consumers who want products that the developed world has enjoyed for decades. This inevitably means that waste will grow proportionally. However, resource recovery is rarely given the focus it deserves to prevent impacts on water quality, health and livelihoods.
Mike Biddle, CEO of Material Solutions and founder of MBA Polymers Inc., suggests that three important areas of development will help keep waste from ending up in the wrong place by liberating value from waste streams more efficiently:
1. Lower-cost and more-effective ways to separate plastics from other materials, allowing for smaller scales of efficient material aggregation.
2. Better plastic sorting and purification technologies that allow recyclers to make plastics at sufficient quality to replace virgin material.
3. Waste-to-fuel technologies that can convert what cannot be recycled into clean fuels — allowing waste processors to get closer to zero-waste solutions.
The key to achieving the first has to do with reaching scale in new ways that create value, even if that scale is smaller than what one would expect. Today, the scale often needs to be so large to ensure the low margins make sense economically, that a lot of cities and countries do not even attempt the types of recovery that their societies need. This is a problem, because as we begin to use more complex materials, as well as a greater variety of materials, the options for unified streams of material proliferate, yet decrease in size/volume in any given locality. How do we make sense of this so that materials can be aggregated, even with relatively low technologies that many countries can deploy?
These are some of the weighty issues that will be discussed at the fourth annual Plasticity Forum (www.plasticityforum.com), taking place June 8-9 in Cascais, Portugal. Billed as “a big conversation about the future of plastic,” Plasticity Portugal 2015 will build on last year's successful conference in New York, and feature several high-level speakers, including Biddle, the American Chemistry Council's Steve Russell and Dow Plastics' Jeff Wooster.
The agenda also will feature discussions about some of the solutions and best practices that are making their way to the market and from which we can all benefit. I invite you to come join the conversation.
Doug Woodring, based in Hong Kong, is founder of the Plasticity Forum and director/co-founder of the nonprofit Ocean Recovery Alliance.