While driving to town the other day, workers were cleaning the open sewage along the road as it could no longer effectively deal with sewage and rainwater anymore. Instead sewage spilled over and flooded the street, resulting in offensive pollution and a health hazard for the neighbourhood.
The workers emptied the line and dumped the solid waste clogging the system on the side and cleared the sewage flow for the time being. Guess what? Most of the waste causing the problem were discarded plastic bottles, hundreds of them. In fact, most of the road sides in the city are littered with plastic bottles. And not only in the city. Drive along the main roads in the country, especially along the main trucking routes and you will find endless stretches of plastic bottles thrown out of the windows of cars, trucks and buses. Some 15 years or so ago, discarded bottles were picked up and even asked for by children along the road as the bottles were useful to have. No more, there are simply too many that are thrown away everywhere. There is some recycling of plastic going on but that comes nowhere near the amounts of plastic thrown away throughout the country. Even worldwide, the amount of plastic that is being recycled is less than 10%.
In my search to what can be done to reduce the enormous environmental pollution by plastic I came across an article by Starre Vartan on the website of MNN – Mother Nature Network, www.mnn.com: “Plastic Bank: How to solve the plastic pollution problem and poverty at the same time.” Perhaps we can learn from this strategy and I therefor include below a summary of her article:
“We all know there's too much plastic making its way into the environment; here's an innovative solution to a seemingly intractable problem. It's beyond sobering and bordering on infuriating: Almost every piece of plastic ever made still exists today, like bottle caps, lighters, pen casings, and plastic bottles.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Plastics do not biodegrade, although, under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics do degrade and fragment into small particles, termed microplastics. The scale of our plastic addiction — a terribly useful substance, and so cheap that it's (too) easily disposable — is huge and growing, despite plastic bag bans and beach clean-up organizations. It seems like an intractable problem, especially since the vast majority of polluting plastic makes it into the ocean from storm-water runoff and from blowing off landfills, and neither problem is going to be addressed anytime soon. Plastics pollution can be particularly acute in countries where basic sanitation (forget about recycling) is barely existent and where people are more worried about day-to-day living than recycling (and understandably so).
Fortunately, the start-up company Plastic Bank has come up with a super-smart system that solves both of the above problems: getting people to care about the plastic and potentially lifting them out of poverty because they do. The basic premise is that the company pays people — in kind, with items like food or clothing they can then sell, funding microfinance loans, by turning them into entrepreneurs, or even letting them manufacture what they need with 3-D printers. In a scheme that will surprise nobody who has seen the can-collection documentary, "Redemption," once you assign a value to something that was previously thought of as trash, people organize themselves in ways that make a system for collecting, sorting, and getting compensated for that former trash. Co-founder Shaun Frankson explains, "Almost half the planet lives in poverty. We have over 300 million tons of new plastic created every year, and of that, about 7 million tons ends up in the ocean. How does that happen? What is the root cause? We found that a lot of places in the world, people are dumping plastic waste into the streets and then pushing it into the waterways. Plastic is not waste, plastic can be recycled. We partnered with companies to allow us to recycle every type of plastic. The Plastic Bank is a collection, exchange and 3-D printing exchange."
Because it turns out that, pound for pound, plastic is more valuable than steel — who knew?
The problem lies in the fact that to recycle it, the various types of plastic need to be sorted. There are places in the world where beaches are covered with more plastic than sand — to deal with it requires humans to sort it again. That organizing will happen at Plastic Bank sorting and recycling facilities in the countries where the project will be based, the first of which is Peru.
Why not just pay people cash directly for collecting plastic? Frankson says there are concerns with corruption. But it's likely also because of an idea the company calls "social plastic," which sounds like it will have an edge over other types of recycled plastic — at least from a marketing perspective for the companies that buy it.
"It's not just plastic they are collecting. It's....social plastic. Social plastic is any plastic harvested by the poor for reward, or taken from the ocean, beaches and waterways," Frankson says. "So companies can have not just recycled plastic, but social plastic, which also helps lift someone out of poverty."
And what happens to all that plastic? Useful items are made from them, leading to a cycle that connects real economic value to plastics, instead of the valueless state most of them live in now. Plastic Bank wants to make plastics "too valuable to throw away," and suggest that this is the only sustainable (not to mention cost-effective and empowering) way to keep plastic out of the ocean. According to their site, "As consumers begin to demand the use of recycled plastics in the products they buy, the value of plastics will increase. The more we can increase the value of plastics world-wide, the less plastic will be discarded."