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THE CHALLENGES OF PLASTICS


 

THE CHALLENGE OF PLASTIC WASTE

 

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THE CHALLENGES OF PLASTICS


 

THE CHALLENGE OF PLASTIC WASTE

 

The threat to the planet is us. It’s actually not a threat to the planet - it’s a threat to us
— Margaret Atwood
 

Plastic is one of the best modern human inventions, bringing unparalleled benefits to humankind, democratizing items at mass scale, drastically reducing transport cost and fuel consumption, prolonging and preserving food from farm to tables, extending food shelf life in supermarkets, and many others.  All of which done at an unmatched low conversion cost and energy (relative to paper).  How is that possible?  Because plastic polymers are made of byproducts of oil and gas production.

When contemplating material sustainability for our lives, we need to think and consider the holistic picture: Source (renewable vs. non-renewable), Conversion cost (in terms of energy, money, other resources required to produce the item), and End of Life/Waste.

Plastic scores very well in terms of Conversion cost, better in most matrix than paper.  However, Plastic scores the worst in End of Life / waste management, because the durability becomes a double edge sword once its useful life ends… it takes 500 years up to 1,000 yrs to degrade back to nature.  This is the most urgent challenge we need to address.

Countless debates, perspectives, analysis, research, on the solving the plastic waste challenge are often biased and not balanced, too idealistic, not accounting for local economic reality and socio-cultural aspect, and/or impractical altogether.

 
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GREENHOPE WANTS TO


Greenhope offers effective, economical, and scalable solutions

 

GREENHOPE WANTS TO


Greenhope offers effective, economical, and scalable solutions

 

 

 

Plastic usage that is sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and then at the end of life goes back to nature to complete its loop.

Our approach is to be idealist in envisioning the future which is to arrive at sustainable consumption and production in line with UN goal, sustainable living for our children’s children, but practical in approach accounting not only on environmental factor but economic factors, human behaviors, local realities (land area, GDP per capita, etc.) alternative materials, etc. 

We seek real adoptable solutions, not fantasy.  It is better to have 80% effective solution afforded, adopted and implemented by the >80% of the market than to have 100% elegant solution on paper, but will take another 10-30 years to implement, or can only be adopted by self-sufficient sustainable developed countries, or can only touch 5% high end of the markets. 

That in our view is not a solution, but fantasy, because in the end the global market doesn’t move or move too slow (we are running out of time), while unsustainable consumption pattern continues unabated.

 

REAL SOLUTION SHOULD BE A SCALED SOLUTION THAT CAN SIGNIFICANTLY MOVE THE MARKET TOWARDS BETTER MATERIALS, BETTER USE OF THE MATERIALS, BETTER BEHAVIORS, BEYOND A NICHE SOLUTION


 

Current 3R solutions needs additional R

To solve plastic’s main problem of end of life / waste, many people advocates 3R – Reduce Reuse Recycle, which has existed since 1970.  Had this 3R worked, we would have stopped discussing plastics waste.  Clearly something else is needed.  The 4th R, Return to Earth is the missing link.  


REDUCE

We all need to use only what we need.  Education, advocacy, incentives as well as disincentives (e.g. paid plastic shopping bags) to achieve this can be implemented.


REUSE

Product design, education, should encourage Reuse as much as possible.  For example in Indonesia, the thin plastic shopping bags are heavily reused as garbage can liner, to the point that the thicker garbage liner plastic that is prevalent in developed countries do not exist.


RECYCLE

It is critical to continue improve plastic recycling rate, we all should do our best here.  However, we need to also recognize there are real technical (e.g. multi-layer laminated plastic packaging) and economical (e.g. bulky polystyrene as well as other low value items are hard to collect economically) limitations.  Plastic is also generally cannot be recycled forever (it downgrades). Today only 14% of packaging is collected for recycling, and when additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for subsequent use.


RETURN TO EARTH

After allowing for all 3R above, the degradable technology then will degrade the Plastic at chemical and molecular levels (not physical fragmentation!) by cutting off its long hydro carbon chains, allowing microbes to consume it and help reduce accumulation at the landfill.  It will degrade the plastic within 2-5 years, much better than natural 500-1000 years.

This RETURN TO EARTH necessitates the migration of current conventional plastic towards next generation plastic, ideally have to be degradable (taking care of End of Life/waste), and eventually bio-based (taking care of Source). 

Since the advent bio-based and various degradable technology is achieving economic viability, there is no reason why it cannot be part of the viable solution sets – for the consumers, producers, packagers, policymakers. 

In our view, the truly honest solution will require 4R above as part of the solution set.  Being the latest R to join the party, the mission of Return to Earth is to advocate, collaborate, and implement “better plastic/next generation plastic” and successfully move the market towards better material within a timely manner.  There is absolutely no reason for regular plastic to continue as is if the next generation is already available and achieving economic viability. 

One final caution note is that this 4R is also not a silver bullet, as human behavior towards waste and waste management process itself still need to be addressed continuously.  

 

 

4R as it returns plastic back to earth (and feeding the microbes) should be considered as part of the Circular Economy, fully makes the circle full -- circle back to nature, after the goods have been adequately Reduced, Reused, Recycled many times