The main focus of the recent Our Ocean Conference in Bali asked the question what are our plastic pollution options? The companies and countries in attendance, presented commitments to recycling, producing products using recycled material, and how to combat plastics such as abandoned fishing gear (ghost nets).
Heather Kuhlken, your Blue Ocean correspondent returned from the Our Ocean Conference with a wealth of ideas to report. Also, Heather’s son was invited to the conference as a representative to the SOA Youth Leadership Summit.
Stopping the Plastic Plague
The exhibit hall was filled with companies offering plastic pollution options and using reclaimed plastics in all kinds of ways, including road construction as a cement additive. But the problem remains: removing plastics doesn’t really accomplish much because it will just be replaced with more plastic.
The only real way to stop the “plastic plague,” as Peter Thomson (UN Special Envoy for the Ocean) named it, is to stop producing plastic altogether, or stop creating consumer focused single use plastics.
Thomson stated the reality that “you have a choice as a consumer to buy a product wrapped in plastic. But unfortunately, you are frequently forced into that choice.” He then told the young ocean leaders attending the Our Ocean Youth Summit that whenever he can, he will stand in the store after he pays, unwrap the item he has purchased, and leave the plastic wrapping in the store to send a message about plastic overwrap.
Single Use Plastic
The amount of single use plastics that we are presented with on a daily basis is staggering. Our fast paced, busy lifestyle creates a huge market for food containers that can be picked up on the go. We frequently ask or are only given the option of drinking water that comes in single serving, single use plastic bottles. And almost every item we buy is wrapped in plastic, tied to the package with plastic fasteners, or is shipped padded with plastic air padding.
Even environmentally conscious organic food companies are overusing plastic unnecessarily. For example, organic milk in the US comes in a recyclable cardboard container, but it has a plastic pour spout with a small plastic pull tab inside to seal it. So, the container can be recycled, but many people don’t know this and some locations may not take them, and the pull tabs end up as waste.
There is no reason we cannot return to opening a cardboard carton and pouring milk from the corner as was done for decades. The plastic pour spout is completely unnecessary and makes the entire package less likely to be recycled, with a small bit of plastic created as waste with every carton opened.
After Recycling, What Are the Plastic Pollution Options?
Coca Cola hosted a round table discussion with the Youth Summit participants and both Nestle and Coca Cola discussed that even if you can and do recycle plastic, the issue is creating a market for the recycled plastic. According to Nestle, mixed plastic (different colors and types) recycling can really only create black recycled plastic material to be made into a new product. And only so many things use black plastic to start with.
One of the best markets for recycled plastic is upcycling it into fabric that can then be made into clothing and other items. The recycled plastic fabric is a great alternative to virgin plastic used in most clothing now, but it is an expensive process that can produce toxic byproducts. And, when washed, micro-plastic fibers from the clothing still ends up in the water and ultimately in fish and other marine species.
Clothing companies such as Patagonia (GUPPYFRIEND) have invented wash bags to keep the microfibers out of the water in the wash, but currently their use is not widespread. Upcycling keeps the majority of plastic already produced in the economy, out of the ocean.
But it is not a closed system and it relies on a market for recycled plastic and the processes to make that possible. So, recycling and upcycling cannot be the only solution.
One popular alternative to recycling is compostable plant-based plastic. This product is better, but there are still many issues with it. Plastic cups and utensils that say they are compostable are only actually broken down in large scale industrial compost. Unless your city has a city-wide composting program with the capacity to break down industrial compost, then the idea of compostable plastic is nothing more than advertising.
In their round table discussion with the attendees of the Youth Summit, Nestle explained that many compostable products also have glue in their construction and glue is bad for compost. They then addressed plant based plastic.
Bioplastic has promise as an alternative, but it must be approached with awareness of all the pieces involved. Currently, bioplastics are made most often with corn starch or sugar. Corn is a challenging crop environmentally, as we learned with ethanol. Corn for fuel and for bioplastic is frequently planted on degraded rainforest soil after the trees have been cut down. This is not a sustainable crop and causes huge losses to rainforest.
Companies like Nestle stated that they are working to make bioplastic out of sugar, which can be more sustainably grown. So, bioplastics are promising, but the source of the plastic needs to be examined closely before “greenwashing” it as a perfect alternative to traditional plastic.
Plastic from Seaweed
One of the more promising new plastic alternatives is derived from seaweed. Evowear is a startup company that presented their work during the Our Ocean Conference. Their business plan not only offers an alternative to plastic as their product, but is focused on the social impact the business can have on seaweed farmers, who are some of the poorest farmers. They create plastic bags for everything from spice packs to grocery sacks from seaweed.
The other company that was exhibiting seaweed based plastic alternatives is Lolliwear. They are creating food grade plastic for straws and other items that dissolves in 18 hours. Seaweed based plastic alternatives are a new invention to be watched. Hopefully they will be scalable and affordable as a replacement for single use plastic.
Ideas for the Future from the Future
Another interesting thing presented during the round table discussions on plastic solutions was presented by Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies.
They asked for the Youth Summit attendees to bring them their ideas. Unilever stated that we are in an interesting generation now, where consumers are actually ahead of producing companies in many ways.
Through social media combined with the speed of innovation and a global community that can glimpse new inventions, consumers can actually play a role in creating new business ideas for huge multinational companies.
What Should Companies Be Doing?
Unilever asked the Youth Leaders “Are there things you think companies should be doing?” And most of the plastic alternatives showcased at the conference were from companies founded by young leaders.
As a panelist said during the “Beyond Plastics” talk, “Seeing the excitement around this issue makes me believe there will be an enormous amount of innovation in the next five years.”
One of the biggest differences we can make is to remove the world’s social license to purchase single use plastic, to abandon plastic-based fishing gear, and to allow their trash to fall on the ground where it is washed into rivers and the ocean.
If consumers and countries demand it, inventors and companies will innovate plastic alternatives. The Plastic Wars are just beginning.
By Heather Kuhlken, Blue Ocean contributor, all Conference photos supplied by Heather Kuhlken photography.
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