Plastic Waste: Cash Cow, or Fundamental Design Flaw?

Note: The New York Times Green Blog has just posted the piece below suggesting that plastic waste, if converted to new plastics or fuels, could be a “cash cow,” and a great way to address the huge ecological impact of plastics and boost the economy at the same time.

We’ve addressed this issue before, most recently, here; while there are clear merits to recycling and reuse, we find the approach as the Times describes it to be dangerously oversimplified. Below, we post the Times piece; we follow it with a proposal that the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — one of the leading authorities on the subject of waste and its handling in the Global South — submitted to the Rio+20 process, and shared with us. — Jeff Conant, for GJEP

Plastic Waste = Cash Cow?

By BETTINA WASSENER, cross-posted from The NY Times Green Blog

May 29, 2012 — A group of environmentalists and entrepreneurs is looking for ideas on how to “capture gold”  that is, how to collect and convert plastic waste into new plastic or fuel.
O.K., describing plastic waste as potential “gold” may be overdoing it. But the campaigners say that publicizing the notion that plastic is worth something may help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in oceans and the bellies of sea creatures.

To that end, they have set up a competition inviting members of the public to <>submit ideas online. Organizers will take the best ones to the Rio+20 earth summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro next month, where they are planning a daylong side event called <>Plasticity focusing on issues related to plastic pollution.

The plastic waste problem is gaining broader attention as environmentalists scientists, manufacturers and the public become more aware of the sheer volume of the stuff that finds its way into the sea.

More than 260 million metric tons of plastic are now produced per year, according to the trade association <>PlasticsEurope. The majority of that  estimates range up to 85 percent  is not recycled. Most of it ends up in landfill, and a significant amount ends up as litter on land, in rivers and in the oceans.

Technological advances have made clear that it is possible to reuse much of this plastic by turning it into fuel or new products. Yet the companies that have come up with such solutions have not achieved the economies of scale that would allow them to function profitably. Insufficient waste-collection and recycling systems in most countries also stand in the way of “trash to cash” concepts, said Doug Woodring, an environmental entrepreneur in Hong Kong who is among the organizers of the Plasticity forum in Rio.

Rather than breast-beating, the forum aims to highlight some of the technologies and ideas out there for collection and reuse. My personal favorite for now is a vacuum cleaner with plastic parts made from plastic. (END)

To follow is a set of proposals that our friends at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives have submitted to the ‘Zero-draft” — the document being developed by the United Nations at Rio +20.  (ed.)

GAIA Proposal to Rio+20 Zero Draft

GAIA is a worldwide alliance of grassroots organizations, non-governmental organizations, and individuals who recognize that our planet’s finite resources, fragile biosphere and the health of people and other living beings are endangered by polluting and inefficient production practices and health-threatening disposal methods.

We oppose incinerators, landfills, and other end-of-pipe interventions.

Our ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. Our goal is clean production and the creation of a closed-loop, materials-efficient economy where all products are reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace or nature.

GAIA’s membership-based network brings together more than 650 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in 90 countries, all of whom have signed on to the above shared vision statement.

Together, we are calling for changes in production, consumption, and waste disposal practices that are core to the goals of the Rio +20 Conference.

To achieve true sustainability and poverty eradication, we need to shift our economic paradigm away from the current “take-make-waste” system of resource destruction.  In its place, we can reclaim long-held human values of resource conservation and equity, caring, trust, justice, and diversity – and build the local living economies that will be essential to ensuring that life on earth is harmonious with nature while all people’s material needs are met.

Changes in lifestyles and production systems must be global. The affluent, who consume disproportionate resources and are responsible for most pollution, bear a greater responsibility and must take proportionate steps for change.

GAIA asks governments engaged in the Rio+20 process to commit to full-scale investment in inclusive Zero Waste systems, with a transition goal for 2040. Our demands include:

1-      Transform the economy to reclaim resources and revalue community well-being

Create and use development indicators other than GDP–which does not take into account environmental impact, sustainability, equitable distribution of resources, unpaid labor, or quality of life. Stop the export and import of cultures of overconsumption. Emphasize forms and indicators of development that take into account social and environmental well-being, such as those being explored by the OECD and various governments.

Ensure that all products and materials are returned back to the marketplace or nature at the end of the use, emphasizing the “best and highest use” principle in materials management decisions.

Revive and strengthen rural life and livelihoods, recognizing that growth of urban areas is driven by poverty and concentrates consumption and waste generation.

2-   Prevent waste in the first place, and reduce hazardous materials

Reduce the use of energy, materials and natural resources in the lifecycle of products and packaging, and reduce waste generation, toxicity and pollution by investing in in green chemistry and clean production. Discourage disposable and toxic products and processes.

Promote local economies based on the provision of public use, rental and lending services rather than sale of products, and the use of reused products..

3-      Design for recycling and reuse

Increase the durability, reuse, recycling and recyclability of goods, recognizing that recycling conserves resources, saves energy throughout the materials lifecycle, and prevents pollution.

Promote extended producer responsibility for products and packaging to inhibit and punish the practice of planned obsolescence or intentional wasting.

4-   Ensure best and highest use for organics

Put composting, biogas, and animal feed programs in place that return all organic matter, uncontaminated, to the environment to provide a healthy basis for a toxics-free agriculture. Such programs are critical, given the high percentage of organic material in most metropolitan waste streams.

Avoid using biomass resources for energy and fuel, creating a demand that will further deplete forestry and soils.

5-      Respect the rights of recyclers

Prioritize programs that, following the proximity principle, create green, sustainable, local jobs. Waste workers, whether private-sector, public-sector, informal or entrepreneurial, must be accorded due respect and integrated into comprehensive materials management strategies.

Promote social inclusion in activities related to waste management, particularly the dignification of urban recyclers, fostering the internalization of their positive environmental impacts.

6-      Invest in the future we want, and support real solutions through public policy

Guarantee that public funds and international and national legislation support increasing reuse, recycling and composting combined with ecodesign in order to guarantee that any product can be safely repaired, reused and /or recycled at the end of its life.

Shift current subsidies from extraction and waste disposal to resource recovery, creating significantly more jobs, while distributing income more equitably.

7-      Promote innovative community-led programs that protect public health

Encourage the adoption of materials recovery techniques and processes that are local, safe, and respectful of local and indigenous cultures; where technology transfer occurs, it must respect the sovereignty and rights of local communities.

Give communities real participation in the materials recovery programs; include them in the design, implementation and monitoring of the programs, pay attention to their needs and ideas. Zero waste policies and programs contribute to social cohesion and enable the active participation and involvement of communities in the transformation of development patterns and sustainability building.

8-      No incineration! Put technology at the service of people

Phase out incinerators and other end-of-pipe waste technologies, which are expensive, inefficient, and highly hazardous to human health. Such technologies undermine a Zero Waste economy and are incompatible with Zero Waste.

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