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What Does the Future of Global Plastic Pollution Look Like?

by Katherine Shayne
January 29, 2019

Katherine is an environmental engineer, UGA College of Engineering faculty, and Co-founder & CEO of Can I Recycle This, Inc. Focusing on solutions to the ocean plastic pollution problem, Katherine serves as a SOA Youth Ocean Leader where she chairs a committee to inform international governments about youth-led solutions to marine debris. 

I'm an environmental engineer, I do environmental research consulting, working with companies around the issue of global plastic pollution, and ways in which we can find solutions to the problem. One of the companies that I'm currently working with is Parley for the Oceans. They take what is deemed ocean plastic, and turn it into products that consumers can buy and reuse. It's what some people call an upcycling mechanism, so you're taking something that is virtually trash, and you're making it into products that are sellable in the global market. Which is a big part of recycling in that when products are recycled, if they don't have a market value, they tend to become trash. Non-valuable materials are taken to the landfill, which ultimately actually costs the recycling system in many ways, through transportation and fees at the landfill.

One of the biggest things we see is that there isn’t enough market value for the post-consumer plastics we're creating. We've developed a company called Can I Recycle This, which uses artificial intelligence, specifically image and voice recognition, to inform consumers about the end of life of their products. Therefore reducing contamination in recycling centers if people are putting the right things in their recycling bin.

For example, you could say, "Hey Alexa, ask Green Girl ..."  Green Girl is like our Alexa, she's our personality. "Hey Alexa, ask Greengirl if I can recycle this coke bottle." First she's going to figure out where you are, because you have location services enabled, and then she'll come back and say, "Is it plastic or is it glass?" If you say, "Plastic." Then most of the time, your city is going to take plastic PET Coca Cola bottles, and then if you say glass, you actually might not be able to recycle that, depending on your location.

What we found is that every city, every county, or what we call an MRF shed, takes different products and materials. Recycling is not the same across all boundaries in the United States, it's actually very different. Right now in Athens, where I live, glass is something that's taken by the recycling center, whereas in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, it's not taken. But most consumers don't know that, so we've developed this technology to help consumers, and we're still in the process of developing the business; it’s in the bootstrap stage. We are self funded currently.  

Beyond that, partnering with big box stores and online marketplaces would be our next step. Something is shipped to you, say you get a box from online, within your packaging, on your receipt, it'll tell you, "Based on where we shipped this package, x is recyclable, and x unfortunately has to be thrown away." We want to put that language in there, unfortunately, because we really don't want things, like precious materials to end up in the landfill. Beyond that, if we want to go into the zero waste mindset, instead of having it on a printed receipt that's in the box, have it in the email that comes when it says, "Your package has arrived." And just have it in the email somewhere.

This concept comes out of my research and the research from the Jambeck Research Group. I was a part of the Jambeck Research Group for five years at the University of Georgia. Jenna Jambeck is one of the co-founders with me for Can I Recycle This, so I still am very much involved with the research group, but in a different capacity now. We know that mismanaged waste is tied to what goes into the ocean.

In 2015, the group published a paper that estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste was going into the ocean each year from land.

It's key from land, because that means that there's something that's being mismanaged in waste systems, for those materials to end up in the ocean, especially plastic. This concept of how do we manage our materials better, how do we inform consumers? Really hits home, because it does tie into what gets out into the ocean. And now the recycling markets have been turned upside down with China’s implementation of their National Sword policy.

Amy Brooks published a paper about how much plastic would be displaced by 2030 because of the National Sword policy. We used to ship all of our plastic scrap to China.

Because of the ban, we're going to have 111 million metric tons of plastic scrap displaced by 2030.

This has already had implications. Plastic has been stockpiling on coasts in mostly developed countries around the world. Because it wasn't just us, it was other countries that shipped their waste to China. This type of policy makes the US, and other developed nations rethink their recycling schemes.

We have to figure out how we can have less contamination in the recycling stream. Because if you have a lot, say you have a bale of PET bottles, and 10% of those are actually replaced by foam plastic, like your styrofoam containers, because those were accidentally put into the stream, immediately that bale becomes way less valuable than it was if it was just PET bottles. We found that companies like Coca Cola, Unilever, Proctor Gamble, these big companies that produce a lot of these products that use plastic have goals for the future about using recycled content in their products.

By 2030, Coca Cola has said that they're going to use 50% recycled material, post consumer plastic in their products. To be sustainable, there has to be a stream of recycled content that comes from recycling facilities around the nation. That's where contamination is a big problem, because it can't use those bales that are contaminated.

We really wanted to look at this from a consumer perspective, because it really starts with the consumer using that product and deciding what bin they're going to put it in, and what materials they're going to put in the recycling bin.

I guess this is one of the reasons I really like waste, and products and waste management, is because it has this inherent human factor that we consciously have to think about what we purchase, what we throw away on a daily basis, and we're in contact with these things. It’s one of the only civil infrastructure systems that you really have to have a personal connection.

Do you think infrastructure is enough? Considering the mass amount of plastic we’re producing?

No, I definitely do not view waste management and solid waste infrastructure as the end all be all to our massive waste problem. I promote reduction of waste practices. And research has shown that small, individual acts of reduction and reuse actually make a tangible difference in decreasing waste into the ocean. Reusing bottles and things that you have, or purchasing reusable bottles, things that you can refill, because ultimately the water that you're drinking out of a plastic bottle is just tap water, so why not drink something we already have for a very reduced cost? In the US that's very possible, however I do a lot of international traveling for research, and in many countries this is not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of countries that rely on using bottled water, rely on using packaged materials for hygiene, because they don't have clean drinking water. So in these places, this isn't something they can necessarily do. Changing that type of infrastructure is important as well. Having refill stations, or places that do filter water stations. Solid waste infrastructure is different in every country. Informal waste sectors are very much prevalent in other countries. They are still here in the US, we still have informal waste, and people that are going and searching out valuable materials, but it's much more prevalent in other places around the world.

We found that you can’t displace people from their jobs by putting in these giant waste infrastructures, like landfills and recycling centers. We want to work in a culturally and socially contextual space of saying, "There are these people that are already doing these jobs, we don't wanna displace their work."

Waste management is not necessarily the end all be all, but it's a key solution. Definitely the reduction of waste in the first place, the reduction of plastic production and use has to be part of that solution as well.

We estimate that we've produced roughly 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastic to date. This is from the beginning of plastic production until 2015.

To put this into context, this would be the equivalent of 25,000 Empire State Buildings by weight. We’ve produced 6300 Million Metric tons of plastic waste and only roughly 9% of what we generate of plastic waste is recycled. We're throwing away tons of plastic that could actually be valuable. Not only that, but we're producing a lot of plastic to replace material like glass, wood, metal, and other materials that we could definitely continue using. We would just have to figure out how to use them in a sharing economy.

If you have a glass bottle, make it accessible to refill stations or places that sell in bulk. Instead of having everything packaged in plastic, have grocery stores and wholesale stores sell in bulk quantities, where you can refill bottles, or containers with what you need. We've seen some of this change, but it's still a very niche market change. We are always open to larger marketplaces, making this something that is more mainstream. Right now we're seeing it in very mom and pop shops, or places like Earth Fare, where it might not be economical for someone in a lower socioeconomic level to shop. Making these market changes to where these services are available for everyone is another place I’d like to see change.

There's the reduction side and reuse side, but we have to start looking at new materials as well. That's also a solution. We've moved to plastic for packaging overtime because of the weight and the cost of shipping that, but what can we use besides plastic? Instead of this more or less toxic material, why aren't we looking at more bio benign materials, biodegradable materials? I think on the packaging side we're going to see more, and on the food packaging side especially, we're going to see more materials that are being made with properties not harmful to the environment, harmful to people, and are easily managed.

We do some of this research at UGA, at the New Materials Institute, and we're looking at the biodegradability of certain types of bio-based polymers, and how this fits into a consumer composting scheme. If we produce these materials, how do we let consumers know that these are compostable materials? Because they look and feel like plastics. Are there composting infrastructures for collection? Because you can produce these materials and make them biodegradable, but if people don't have access to a composting facility, they're going to end up in the landfill or in the recycling. This would actually cause contamination because they're not the same type of plastic as other packaging.

Alternate materials are something I see happening for large store, food packaging and online marketplaces. With online shopping and shipping, I foresee an increase in post consumer packaging waste that isn’t recyclable. Packaging can become more circular through implementation of a thoughtful design process. Companies can employ green design principles, where end of life is thought of at the beginning of the design process, and products and packaging are made to be easily disassembled. New materials could fit into this design process. Image if you could just compost all the packaging your products, food, etc. was shipped in?

When you really start to research plastic, a lot of the information comes from people like you, from places like the Jambeck Group. What is it like watching reporters, civilians, politicians, interpret then promote or disregard your work?

When I first started, the space for waste management and plastic discussions was kind of crappy. You could put something on Twitter about a turtle ingesting plastic, and no one really cared, which was sad. Now the climate is totally different. I think that plastic use, plastic generation, the work that's being done around it ending up in the ocean, the attention that it's getting is just astronomically different now, compared to what it was five or six years ago. I'm even a newcomer in this space compared to some of the people I admire, who have been doing this work for 20+ years.

That's really exciting for me to say, because people are starting to realize that we can't continuously use and waste everything. It's not going to work. We have to use our resources wisely, we have to think consciously about what we put in our bodies every day, what we put on our bodies, what we use. I think that trend is not something that's going to go away anytime soon.

Some of it can be doom and gloom, like we can never clean up the ocean, we can never stop this from happening, we can't reduce our waste generation, and sometimes you just have to realize who might be putting out that content, and kind of fight against it. Because this is a very visible issue, it's something that's tangible, it's something that people can see and connect with. Even if they're not by an ocean, they've probably been to a body of water once in their life, and can somehow connect with polluting our waterways and polluting our ocean. It is so intrinsically tied to humans and tied to our daily routines and our daily habits that it's something that people can connect with, and I really love seeing that part of it.

Do you think with other countries following in China’s footsteps a solution for US production of plastic and waste will be forced?

Yes. For sure. Yes. Countries have already started to do that. I know Malaysia's one, Thailand's another one that said, "No more. We're not taking your waste either." It’s already forcing the US to reevaluate our system and our recycling and say, "What are we doing wrong? How can we reduce contamination, and how do we inform citizens?" Plastic scrap is accumulating and I think we're going to have to find markets to use it.  We should be asking ourselves, “How do we makes these materials valuable? What companies, start-ups, etc. could develop products to use these materials?” I think that is a solution which will happen quickly in the US.

What does your future research look like?

Understanding composting in the US, because I do believe that a lot of our packaging is going to be shifting towards biodegradability, and then how we manage that, so I think that composting is going to be something that is on the rise in the US.

Secondly, we're doing some work with specific community assessments. Essentially looking at a community and figuring out what are the inputs into a community, how do they use their materials, how do they use the resources, and then what are the outputs? Then, where's the leakage to the environment? This research  is being done in the group by one of my colleagues, Amy Brooks, right now, and it's something that can be applied globally.

Then thirdly, I'm currently heading a group through the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, which is a collection of global ocean youth leaders, looking specifically at the plastic pollution problem, and identifying solutions in specific countries. The Sustainable Oceans Alliance Group is made up of representation from 50 countries by youth leaders. I developed this group to develop white papers to for government and figure out what solutions are working in their specific countries. We’re going to make them aware that there is a youth presence in their countries who have actionable solutions to implement.

We are always looking to research sustainable waste infrastructure, and how to integrate then into developing economies. Like I mentioned before, there are cultural and social contexts to developing these systems that are inherently part of design process. They can’t be excluded, and I firmly believe that. So it’s exciting to see what we can learn from the informal waste sector, and community led initiative around solid waste management for reuse and reduction to curb input of waste into the ocean.