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Can Digital Payouts Help Solve the Ocean Plastics Crisis?

By Nithin Coca
Ocean Plastics

Could micropayments, new technologies, and, perhaps, the blockchain be tools in helping solve the plastic pollution crisis in Southeast Asia? Several organizations are looking at how innovation can help create more incentives for cleaning up plastic waste from ending up in our oceans and involve citizens in more effective waste management systems.

One prototype for this took place in Manila Bay, Philippines, which was, until recently, choked of plastic pollution. Bounties Network was able to collect three tons of plastic using a system that paid locals in an Ethereum-based cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, Plastic Bank, a new blockchain company, opened its first permanent location, a collection point where residents can trade plastic and other recyclable materials for digital payouts.

Both projects aim to develop solutions to address the global plastic pollution crisis. The focus on the Philippines is no accident, as developing countries, particularly Asian countries, are at the heart of the problem. There, growing middle classes and increasing demand for consumer products, including those of global brands such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestle, has skyrocketed over the past decades. All of those companies use plastic packaging, but few invested in systems to recapture the plastic they sold. The result is plastic waste discarded into the natural environment, and, eventually, the ocean. As much as eight million metric tons a year end up in the globe’s oceans and have created a problem we can no longer ignore.

“As plastic pollution continues to wreak havoc on the natural world and impact communities, wildlife, and people, we can’t wait to address the damage that has already been done. This crisis can be solved, but we need to start at the root and fix what is a fundamentally broken system,” said Nik Sekhran, Chief Conservation Officer at World Wildlife Fund-US in a press statement.

There’s good news on this front, as countries, businesses, and civil society actors have all started to take concrete steps to reduce plastic pollution. One country leading is Indonesia, which is the second largest source of oceanic plastic waste behind China according to a report from Ocean Conservancy. The archipelago nation of 260 million has a plan to reduce marine waste by 70 percent and increase recycling 300 percent by 2025. This is backed by a commitment to invest $1 billion a year to improve waste management infrastructure.

Key to this will be scaling up waste collection and teaching Indonesians to sort trash properly. To aid with this are what Indonesians call “trash banks“ (Bank Sampai) which play a similar role to Plastic Bank in the Philippines. Residents can bring in organic and non-organic waste to be sorted, and have that amount deposited into a special bank account. There are over 2,000 trash banks in operation across Indonesia, and there are plans to expand the system significantly over the coming years.

“In Indonesia, public participation in trash management is low,” said Putra Fajar Alam, the director of Solusi Hijau Indonesia, which provides technology support to these trash banks. “But when we taught them there are trash banks where you could bring your daily trash and it could be converted into money, and you can make that deposit as a savings, they are very interested.”

Cleaning up and collecting plastic is just one part of the solution. Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries generating more plastic waste need to expand infrastructure to be able to recycle collected plastic, which will be a major challenge. Even many western countries have not done this – we choose to send waste abroad, often to Asia, as its cheaper to ship waste to that region than deal with it at home. That is changing, though, as recently some countries have begun returning this unwanted waste, including China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Ultimately, we need to move beyond recycling toward a circular economy model. Solving the plastic crisis will take more than just creating incentives to clean up beaches. It will require systematic change, from consumers, businesses, and governments, to shift the entire global system from one dependent on single-use plastic, to one where reusability and recyclability are central.

Image credit: Dustan Woodhouse/Unsplash

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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