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Plastics, Industry, Nonprofits and Thoughts on Solutions from A UNEP Land Ocean Connections Conference

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Last week I had the pleasure (and pain) of representing The 5 Gyres Institute at the second UNEP Global Land Ocean Connections conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The pleasure came from meeting with an international coalition of groups all devoted to solving the marine eco-disaster that is plastic pollution.  The pain came from being trapped in a hotel looking at an ocean that I desperately wanted to swim in–after all, that’s why I do what I do; I love being in the ocean.  Inside, marathon meetings were norm, working roughly 12 hour days trying to build a global framework for dealing with upstream sources of plastic pollution. Topics included emerging technologies– incineration, cradle to cradle recycling, community engagement and plastic to fuel processing.

What was missing was a conversation on source reductions– that is, as global society, using less plastic.  One of the largest issues we face with persistent plastic pollution is that we keep using more of it, despite new technologies aimed at dealing with it, end of life. Every year, more ends up in the environment, and it doesn’t go away.  As an NGO, or as environmentalists in general, we’re often accused of being anti-business. Being considered pro-business, as of now, means being pro-business as status quo. In a breakout session, David Osborn, UNEP’s Coordinator for Ecosystems Management played devil’s advocate asking the question to stakeholders, “Why would industry want to be a part of The Marine Litter Partnership?” Indeed, the very partnership we were all there to build a framework for. But the problem with this exercise is that it’s predicated on the fact that industry is fueled by growth, and if you make plastic, that means you need to make and sell more.  I’m afraid that where we are right now is already over the edge to some degree– we can’t necessarily worry about the health and welfare of a polluting industry over the damage done to the environment.  Plastic is a great material, but single-use plastic is a huge area of growth for the industry, and I’m afraid that we need to see business get worse for these producers, not better if we’re going to begin to tackle this problem.  If you’re trying to support industry growth and keep plastic out of the environment, you’ve got a contradiction in terms with the existing mechanisms we have for stopping pollution. A full scale paradigm shift in how the business of plastic works is what we need. And maybe that means not making some of it. Maybe that means getting resin makers to divest in producing virgin material and invest in recycling that which they’ve already made. That’s an important distinction– the guys that make the stuff by and large don’t recover or reprocess it. Seems to me like shifting focus from production to recovery and recycling a bit might make a big difference.


5 Gyres advocates for banning certain ‘problem products’ because the status quo business paradigm is horribly inadequate for dealing with the volumes of it– i.e. the growth trajectory and poor recovery factor. Regardless of the ability of certain plastic products to be turned into new products, they largely are not (by a HUGE factor), and even if their exists a major potential market for the plastic we landfill or allow to escape in the environment, it’s my belief that if these technologies were really profitable, you’d see large scale venture capital fighting to invest in it. Heck if we’re forced to apply the laws of the market to solve this problem, then we should have the luxury of analyzing the existing market landscape’s inability to solve the problem.

As of now, there is still a major discrepancy between ‘is recycled’ and ‘can be recycled’.  But it’s our belief at 5 Gyres  that banning problem products isn’t necessarily anti-business.  As soon as something is eliminated from a market, you’ve just created a new market opportunity for a sustainable model to replace it. 5 Gyres absolutely is interested in promoting disruptor models that eliminate single-use plastic.  For example, if one were to eliminate plastic bottles from say, a university, you’ve just created a business model for refillable Klean Kanteens to be sold in their place as well as hydration stations to be installed.  That’s money.  And potentially big money.  There are countless examples of disruptor markets being subsidized by either regulation or incentive to solve vexing environmental issues and many that don’t even require policy to prop them up because they can compete on merit.  But to be clear, the solution to plastic pollution can’t just be on the shoulders of small nonprofits to solve the waste problems created by multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporations.  That’s something that they need to do, themselves.  It’s our job to make sure they do.  From the nonprofit vantage, our message is clear– deal with your waste in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way or we’re going to work together, en masse, to get it out of the marketplace. We can talk stick or carrot, but either way, the flow has got to stop.

You’ve probably noticed that 5 Gyres has been a key partner in driving bag bans.  This isn’t because we believe bags can’t be recycled, it’s because we believe re-use is a better strategy for a product that can’t be recycled in a closed loop way– that is, if recycling plastic bags created a market landscape that made the overall virgin  production of plastic bags go down and made the post consumer material so valuable that you’d have people climbing trees to get those plastic bags to sell to recycling processors, we’d abandon bag bans in an instant.  The problem is that everything we’ve seen proposed by industry for keeping plastic bags out of the environment and out of the bellies of sea turtles hasn’t worked.  That’s how you judge the efficacy of a policy or strategy– it eliminates the problem.  But that’s not the world we live in, apparently.  To be clear, any solution proposed by industry must actually address the problem as it exists and these nominal increases in recovery (which in terms of bags, the recovery rate is actually going down) and massive increases in production make for a scenario that just doesn’t work– metrically. The largest recycler of bags in the US reprocesses roughly 1/50th of the bags in the market. From a metric standpoint, that’s terrible.

Consumption of Plastic

How much do we use? To give you an idea of what were dealing with in terms of plastic production, the per capita consumption in North American was around 223 pounds per person in 2001, but in 2010 it increased to 326 pounds. That’s a 46% increase in a single decade. Yikes!


But there are some good advances in recycling that are absolutely hopeful.  For instance, it’s now possible to turn a PETE bottle into a PETE bottle in a one to one fashion.  But to close the loop and decrease virgin production, we need to incentivize collection (container deposits) which not only affect the curbside recycling stream, but also incentivize people to actually pick the stuff up out of the environment before it gets to the ocean.  One company, Carbonlite, located in California has a technology capable of making food grade post-consumer bottle to bottle plastic.  One of their biggest clients is Nestle Waters who utilize 50% post consumer PETE in one of their flagship brands.  This is a great start (though let’s remember that 50% is still an F on any test).  But when you dig deeper, you need to ask, “what’s the barrier to 100% post consumer plastic bottles and the end of virgin plastic production in a reliable supply chain?” Answer: it’s not technology, it’s the recovery rate– and far and away the best way to recover PETE is to put a deposit on the bottle. In some states in the US, that gets you to a B+ and occasionally to an A on a test. But beverage companies fight deposits tooth and nail for reasons that are pretty unclear to us– the economic argument that people buy fewer bottles as a result of a deposit doesn’t seem to hold water, and frankly, the single most sustainable thing that say Coke, Pepsi and Nestle could to do to mitigate their respective products burden on the environment isn’t to throw money at putting polar bears on a can, but to support a national bottle deposit bill. Overnight, you’d see almost no plastic bottles in the environment– in short, the solution to this problem already exists and the barrier to it is clear– industry– the same industry that wants have a stake in things like UNEP Marine Litter Partnerships.  These businesses  could emerge as leaders and create a market landscape for companies like Carbonlite to thrive and attract capital, that is, GROW.  Heck, maybe they would feel flush enough to take some risk and create an environmental fund to build PETE recycling infrastructure in places without it, like Jamaica. With a global deposit scheme, we could entirely stop plastic bottle pollution inside 20 years. That would sure make the NGOs happy and the tourists that visit Jamaica’s beaches, too.

The Problem As It Exists In Reality

In Jamaica, there is a population of 2.7 million people and over a million of those people burn their garbage.  Riding in a cab, it’s what you smell against the backdrop of paradise.  There’s the issue of landfills overflowing which makes it costly for citizens to pay to properly dispose of their waste, so they burn it or they chuck it in a gully.  What’s the incentive for them to bring it back to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF)? Answer, there isn’t one– there isn’t even a MRF to take it to.  So, part of responsible environmental legislation for a country like Jamaica is to create import tariffs to build waste management infrastructure that can deal with the onslaught of plastics entering the country– or even better, ask the importers to build it.  That would be a great start.  Beyond tariffs there are international funding mechanisms that could be used build this infrastructure– or even tax incentives or international monetary funds to attract recyclers to their country. Here’s a practical example of the ethos I’m taking about. There is a NGO that brings bicycles to third world countries and gives them to citizens who need to transport their goods to market. This allows folks who had to walk to market to all of the sudden decrease travel time and increase capacity to transport creating huge boons to their overall sales and quality of life. But the key is that the NGO doesn’t just import bikes, they set up collectives with spare parts and train bike mechanics to ensure that when a tire goes flat, the bike doesn’t become worthless. This is exactly what needs to be done if plastic is going to be imported to a country that can’t deal with it, end of life.

From a grassroots standpoint, the good folks in Jamaica I met who were facilitating cleanups should consider tying their education efforts to the fact that plastic pollution can affect tourism.  If you burn your garbage it’s going to stink.  If you dump it in a gully it’s going to wash out to sea, and often wash up on the very beach where you might work.  So if you’re counting on money derived from tourists to buy the products that you dump, (in Jamaica, tourism is 10% of GDP and 65% of all jobs are tied to the service industry) you’re shooting yourself in the foot to spite your face. If your dollars come from white people with money coming to sit on a pristine beach, that beach better be pristine if your industry is going to be sustainable. The next step after dealing with your own waste is to demand that your government ensures that there is infrastructure building money tied to imports of plastic packaging.

Plastic To Fuel

S0, do these schemes of processing technologies that turn plastic to fuel help solve the problem?  From what I witnessed, the answer is no so far–  the technology of turning plastic to fuel is based on the plastic being cleaned, sorted and delivered to a processing plant’s front door free of charge. This would require some other funding mechanism to subsidize them to make the technology market viable. To process, you spend about 50% of the energy you get out as an input to create the fuel and there is no scheme where collecting it keeps the economic paradigm above water.  You also have the problem of slag– potentially highly toxic waste as slag coming out of the process. The guys promoting this stuff at the conference didn’t really want to talk about slag.  Even if government subsidizes the collection and cleaning, there exists a better alternative than turning it to fuel.  In short, if you have an input of clean and sorted plastic subsidized and delivered, than there is a great market for recycling it which is a better end of life scenario in our opinion.

Recycling Innovations

Perhaps the most outspoken recycler present at the conference was Mike Biddle from MBA Polymers who has been instrumental for modernizing recycling to deal with the waste stream as it actually exists and the hard to recycle stuff.  Mike, an ex-BigPlastic man himself has created technologies that can go a long way to reprocessing waste that often gets overlooked. Incidentally, Mike, a PhD chemical engineer said straight up that plastic obtained from the marine environment (stuff harvested from the ocean, for instance) is mostly way too polluted with persistent organic pollutants and is way too photo-degraded to be useful, or valuable.  And for Mike, it makes no sense to go into the ocean to get this stuff instead of building the infrastructure that gets it to his plant before it gets to the ocean.  So much for economically viable gyre cleanup schemes.

Beat The Micro-Bead, An Example Of Plastic That Needs To Be Banned


Globally, we need to use less plastic and the bad stuff has to go or be embargoed until viable solutions for dealing with it exist.  As part of 5 Gyres mandate in Jamaica, we were there to meet with our international partners on the international ‘Beat The Micro-Bead’ campaign. This included The Plastic Soup Foundation, Sichting De Noordzee, Fauna & Flora, Plastic Free Seas, Seas At Risk, and Marine Conservation Society.  Microbeads are an example of plastic that simply needs to be eliminated, they’re designed to be used in facial scrubbers as exfoliants. Then it goes down the drain and into the environment.  No recovery plan exists for them at all. Microbeads are totally disposable and designed to be totally disposable.  5 Gyres presented on our evidence finding these beads in fresh water systems and this has been a significant driver for getting companies all over the world to agree to get rid of them.  With the launch of an international platform funded by UNEP and Fauna & Flora, consumers can scan the barcodes with a smartphone to see if the product contains micro-beads and if the company that produces them has agreed to phase them out.  We fully expect to eliminate the plastic micro-bead within 15 years, entirely.

What’s The Take Away? 

What’s amazing about UNEP is that they bring together the right people together to discuss how to solve this problem.  Where we fail, all of us, is that we’re constantly in the ‘developing strategies’ phase and that’s the problem we need to address.  It’s also to realize, just like in business, that there will be losers in all of this–  we simply can’t make everyone happy and keep plastic out of the ocean, not with the market and socio-economic realities we face.  We’ve got to cut down, and Big Plastic needs to start diversifying their revenue streams away from single-use production, because it’s enemy number one to the ocean.

It’s been the vision of Anna, Marcus, and myself at 5 Gyres that we should try to bring an international coalition of waste people and industry together to find a funding mechanism to tackle just ONE nation’s problem.  We call this idea, HotSpot. I’m a firm believer in experience based learning instead of theoretical-  it’s why I work for 5 Gyres precisely–  we study the problem as it manifests in the environment and base our solutions from what we’ve personally witnessed in the oceans.

Marcus’s founding vision recognized that if we were going to tackle this problem, we needed to understand its scope, not just in computer models, but in actual, real data so we can get a global baseline of plastic in all oceans.  We’ve done that, and we’re the only people who have done that and soon these finding will be published.  And we’ve taken hundreds of other stakeholders out the gyres to bear witness him or herself and recognize the importance of continuing to monitor and get people to sea. Anna’s founding vision was to educate based on this evidence, create the kinds of images and films needed to engage people not only to teach them, but to teach the teacher so that good word can travel farther. My vision was to base policy on the evidence we find and enlist the folks 5 Gyres has educated on the subject to act.

In our heart of hearts, we want to create HotSpot as a collaborative paradigm to take to one place in the world with serious waste issues. We’d utilize all the expertise that attends these UNEP conferences to create a model that we can then extrapolate to hundreds of other nations.  The cost of this would be astronomical, well maybe– maybe with the right partners involved we can make it profitable– but there will be an outlay of capital and a serious disruption to the market. That’s what we needed– we can’t keep applying the same tactics to a problem if they’re not working; we’ll get the same result. We need vision, and vision applied to a case study.  I met so many amazing talents at this conference and I firmly believe with serious resources we could work together to show the world how it’s done.

Give us some time to build the organization, HotSpot is going to happen for one reason– it must.




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5 Responses

  1. Stiv,
    Enjoyed the post.

    Re Mike Biddle statement that photo-degraded ocean plastic is useless for recycling : Do we know the utility of it for plastic-to-fuel reuse? I assume that the ocean plastic might have more toxic by-products that would need catalytic filters and might make the process less viable.

  2. John Kieser says:

    As someone that is walking the tightrope being a conservationist and as environmental manager for a federation that represents the South African Plastics Industry I found attending the conference very motivational. Although there is incredible work being done to counteract the conditions whereby plastics get into the environment I believe that we are heading towards an impasse. Once use plastics (ear-bud sticks, straws, shopping bags, expanded polystyrene packaging for fast food, etc.) is not being recycled as they are most of the time too contaminated and while punching in the data of this years International Coastal Clean-up I find myself just getting angrier by every extra straw onto that list.

    Also meeting Mike Briddle was more than motivational, it gave me hope for the future of the industry.

    Stiv, great work!

    Stiv – keep up the good work!

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