Just Two Words – “Plastics” and “Alternatives”

This post is part of the on-going events news, related to the Bay2Rio+20 delegation team’s on-the-ground coverage from Rio+20.  Click here to follow along.

By Jenny Sant’Anna
The logo and name, “Plasticity,” were fun and the invitation to the Plasticity Forum side event in Rio de Janeiro on June 21 was inviting, but the topic at hand was very serious and much dirtier than you might imagine. References to The Graduate were common at this event discussing the future of plastic and plastic waste. The plastic statistics were sobering and discouraging (the low recycling rates, less than 12% in the U.S. and the enormous amount of single-use plastic produced, approximately 50% of plastics are produced for single-use), but perhaps the impression that really drove home the issue for us was when Rosemary De Vos of Window 2050 told us about the plastic raining down onto the ocean floor (up to 70% of the plastic debris in the ocean falls to the bottom) and how this and all the land-based plastic debris is creating a plastic layer of sentiment on earth. Will archaeologists of the future look at this layer and label our time the Plastic Era?

The event comprised a full day of speakers that included heads of NGOs such as Frances Beinecke of the NRDC and Daniella Russo of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, business innovators such as Eben Bayer of Ecovative, Jason Foster of Replenish, and Mike Biddle of MBA Polymers and financier, Bryan Martel of the Environmental Capital Group.

The Bay2Rio+20 team had a few key take-aways to share:
There is no shortage of innovation in plastics. To their credit, businesses are working hard to address the waste challenges that plastics present. However, innovation can get ahead of municipalities and their waste management contractors’ ability to keep up. Mixed plastics and higher tech plastics are challenging to deal with, so while moving away from petro-based plastics toward more plant-based plastics may reduce the carbon footprint of the plastic polymer, it is also more likely the nouveau bottles will end up in landfills versus being recycled. The great number of different types of plastic out there and the difficulty in identifying the plastics at the end of their life, once they are part of the waste stream, creates huge challenges for waste management. Key point here is that the plastic innovators need to be partnering with municipalities and waste management on their innovations so that the entire life cycle is part of the design considerations.

Alexa Kielty of SF Environment’s Zero Waste program moderated a panel and spoke about San Francisco’s composting program. Kielty pointed out that in order to move toward the holy grail of zero waste, municipalities must capture high rates of organics. She had several points to make for cities considering how to add composting to their waste management strategy:

  • Labeling and Legislation are key for supporting composting programs;
  • Closed events (such as festivals, conferences, etc.) offer opportunities for high diversion rates; and
  • Compostable bags must be part of the system consideration.

Many people just won’t compost without some way to bag their food scraps. The ick factor is too high. Figuring out how to deal with bags, whether they are compostable bags or not, is important.

Innovation in the plastics space is not just about tweaking the formula or feedstock of plastics, sometimes it is being completely open-minded to alternatives. Eben Bayer of Ecovative took a bio-adaptive look at possible alternative solutions. Considering some of our incredible living systems and pondering where they might be useful for industrial purposes, Bayer and his partner Gavin McIntyre came up with a material that is made from agricultural byproducts and held together with a mycelium (mushroom) based “glue.” Their product is an excellent, all natural substitute for Styrofoam that can breakdown in your backyard compost pile. Perhaps most important, Ecovative’s material is a cost-competitive alternative to plastic that was designed to be a nutrient rather than waste at the end of its life-cycle.

All the discussions about plastic waste made me feel pretty good about bringing my reusable water bottle all the way to Brazil. And the swag they handed out at Plasticity – a metal straw – will find a new permanent place in my messenger bag along with my bamboo utensils. Because in the end, as Russo of the Plastic Pollution Coalition pointed out, we will just never capture, for recycling, all the disposable plastic we produce. She posited the only real solution is to eliminate disposable plastic. Realistic? Not tomorrow, but with innovators like those at Plasticity, we can be assured there are many good minds working on the issues.

Follow along on Twitter @Bay2Rio20.

Jenny Sant’Anna, a recent graduate from the Presidio Graduate School of Sustainable Management, is interested in all issues concerning ocean health and plastic waste. You can follow her Twitter accounts, @Merbleue2050 and @BagTheBagUSA or read ocean news, information and discussions at http://www.reddit.com/r/oceans.

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