Trading in Plastics

Posted by Flux on 

21 November 2019

What’s trending now?
The war on plastic has started in earnest. In two short years, and thanks to Sir David Attenborough’s documentary The Blue Planet II, awareness of the world’s plastic problem and threat to our planet has gone mainstream.

In Africa, countries like Rwanda, Morocco and Kenya have already legislated a ban on plastic bags. In Kenya, anyone found to be using, selling or producing plastic bags now face a fine of R600,000 or four years in prison.

France has passed a new law to ensure that all plastic cups, cutlery and plates must be compostable and made of biologically sourced materials. The law takes effect next year and is part of France’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act.

While these restrictions will start to curb the use of new plastic, what we do with the plastic we already have, has spawned innovative ideas to collect and recycle the material. This is giving birth to a new economy, one in which plastic becomes a currency and is traded for cash or services – anything from a free meal to a ride on public transport.

Why it’s important
When the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), located halfway between Hawaii and California, was brought to the world’s attention, we discovered that it covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, roughly three times the size of France. It’s also heavy, weighing in at 80,000 tonnes, which is equivalent to 500 Jumbo Jets. It is made up of human detritus, and most of it is plastic.

Around 1 million to 2.4 million tonnes of additional plastic enter the ocean each year via our rivers. Since most of this plastic is less dense than the water, it floats on the ocean surface and eventually collects in a gyre.
(Gyres are large systems of circulating ocean currents, like giant slow-moving whirlpools, and there are five gyres on the planet.)

Once these plastics enter the gyre, they remain trapped there, until they degrade into smaller microplastics, a process that can take decades.

In the past five years, researchers have discovered two more areas where a “soup” of plastic and human debris collects – one in the South Pacific Ocean, the other in the North Atlantic – which will circulate in these oceans until they degrade.

The discovery of degraded microplastics that found their way back into our drinking water is what jolted the world into action. This year, microparticles of plastic were also found in rain and snow . We are breathing and ingesting microplastic particles. The threat to marine life is a growing concern, and we have now started to see the evidence and impact. Scientists warn that if the use of plastic is not contained, they estimate that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

What’s the butterfly effect?
The recycling narrative is starting to change, and the future trajectory can be seen in China where the motivation to recycle is driven not so much on eco guilt but as an economic activity, as well as something to improve one’s social credit score.

Adam Minter, author of a book on China’s scrap business, predicts that recycling could grow to become the second most popular profession in China after farming because the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling market alone is worth billions of dollars. “In the west, recycling is seen as a green activity. In developing Asia, it is an economic activity,” he observes. “If donors are not paid market price, it is not going to work.”

And therein lies the key. We need to change the narrative from eco-speak to economic upliftment, whether it’s in the form of cash or essential services. Once we do that, it then becomes a win-win situation. Save the planet and create economic upliftment by recycling plastic.

The pioneers
Germany and the UK are pioneering “deposit return schemes” in their supermarkets. In many German supermarkets today, you will find Pfand (meaning “deposit) “reverse vending machines”. Pfand is the deposit you pay as part of the price of a bottle or can, which gets reimbursed to you when you return the container to a vendor – the same system we used to have back in the day when cool drinks came in glass bottles.

Trading plastic for travel services is another option, and it’s spreading around the world. Last year Istanbul made recyclables an alternative currency for commuters to top up their subway cards instead of cash. Also called “reverse vending machines”, passengers are able to add credit to their subway cards at metro stations by simply inserting plastic bottles or aluminium cans into the machine. This system alone enabled Turkey to recycle more than half of all its plastic bottles last year.

Above: Watch how Germany is using reverse vending machines to recycle plastic.

The global hotspots?
Similar recyclable-plastic-for-transport systems have appeared in other countries, including the USA, China, Italy, Japan, Indonesia and Brazil.

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

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Image credit: Hermes Rivera
Video credit: Guardian News

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