When plastic was invented in 1907, the world must’ve lacked the foresight to imagine how these highly malleable materials would turn out highly toxic for the environment. Roughly 90% of drinking bottles are never recycled in the United States, flooding our shores and our oceans. Scientists estimate that 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, choking wildlife while they degrade for the next 500 years. Besides that, when you put a plastic bottle into a recycling bin, nine times out of 10, it won’t be recycled due to the inefficiencies of the broken recycling processes. If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. Our planet can no longer tolerate a culture of throw-away plastics. Fighting plastic pollution must see a fundamental shift in how brands and retailers bring products to people. Here are five innovations that seek to disrupt how we deal with plastic.
1. Rethink Packaging
No matter if it’s made of plastic, cardboard, or cornstarch, single-use production is based on outdated linear –“take, make, dispose” — model instead of circular economy principles, including reducing, reusing, recycling, remanufacturing, sharing, repairing, refurbishing, etc. Manufacturing durable and reusable products could help close the loop.
For instance, Blueland startup from New York City sells cleaning supply tablets or powder along with reusable bottles. You can fill the bottle back with tap water and drop it in one of the tablets. The cleaning solution is ready.
Another brand Returnity manufactures reusable shipping bags and boxes that could be fully customized to the specific needs, content protection, and branding requirements.
2. Reinvent Plastic Bags
According to National Geographic data, Americans use an average of 365 plastic bags per person per day. People in Denmark use an average of four plastic bags per year. It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. The bags don’t break down completely but instead become microplastics that absorb toxins and pollute the environment.
The Sway company replaces traditional plastic with a seaweed-derived material. Their bags are bio-based and designed to be carbon-negative. Domtar is developing a new bio-based, recyclable material of 100% cellulose fiber but with stretchable and more durable properties. The Indonesian company Avanieco created an eco-friendly alternative to a plastic bag made out of cassava, the vegetable root which is a staple in the diets of many in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The ’veggie’ bag is completely degradable and compostable. It dissolves in water, so if animals eat it, it won’t cause any harm.
3. Think Circular
The economic model of the future is circular: your outputs become your inputs. In other words, use waste to create new resources and thus restart the cycle. The fashion industry found its own way of fighting plastic pollution.
Rothy’s makes comfortable shoes out of recycled water bottles. Their range is vegan and cold machine washable once you pop out the insole, and they boast a no break-in period. Allbirds also creates eco-friendly sneakers where one recycled plastic bottle equals one pair of Allbirds laces.
Recover Brand collects and sorts plastic bottles — to be remade into t-shirts. They salvage cotton from discarded industry scraps, sorted by color, and blended with polyester. The reclaimed fiber is then spun into yarn and knit into fabric, ultimately cut and sewn into a garment. With a proprietary process, they’re able to produce unique, 100% recycled apparel.
MerMade goes beyond the fashion industry. It produces recycling bins made from fully traceable, certified ocean plastic. And each bin, made with 3.5 pounds of ocean plastic, comes with a 10-year warranty.
4. Engage With Trash
You can fight plastic pollution more engagingly and interactively. For instance, Fill it Forward created a tag and app that connects to the reusable bags, allowing consumers to track environmental impact, earn rewards, and give back to charitable projects.
Cycle Technology is a mobile application that enables users to interact with Reverse Vending Machine, which educates users on the proper disposal of recycled materials. The devices connect wirelessly to a central computing hub that provides real-time data and analytics. And whenever you bring an empty bottle (or empty beer can) for recycling, the system rewards you. Later, you can pledge your green compensation towards sustainable development projects right from your iPhone.
5. Everyone is a Recycler
Most people (84%) believe in recycling, but little more than half (52%) can recycle conveniently. As we look to improve recycling behaviors, we must also connect people’s values to proper recycling behaviors and positive habits.
Precious Plastic promotes the concept ‘everyone is a recycler’ and provides open-source designs for machines that transform ordinary plastic items into useful products and art. Communities worldwide take Precious Plastic workshops where they collect & shred plastic and then create products from recycled plastic. One of them is Lady Green Recycling, a Miami-based organization that recently obtained their own plastic shredding and molding machinery, allowing them to shred plastic, make new products, and sell raw material.
Lady Green Recycling services over 1,000 locations educating the local public on proper recycling methods. Each client receives their own bins with QR codes on them. These QR codes allow clients to access personalized videos which explain the recycling process. Hence, anyone ranging from children at schools or adults in offices knows how to use the recycling program.
“Our approach sees people as the key element to fix plastic pollution,” says Michelle Salas, CEO of Lady Green Recycling. Sometimes they are not willing to change their complete lifestyle, and we have to let them know that you can make small changes that aren’t going to get in the way of your everyday life but can still make a big impact.”