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Nithin Coca headshot

Plastic Bottles for Public Transit: A Growing Trend

Plastic bottles are now valid fare to ride the subway in Rome, Italy, but you’ll need 30 bottles to get enough credit for one trip.
By Nithin Coca
Plastic Bottles

Plastic bottles are now valid fare to ride the subway in Rome, Italy, Fast Company and several travel sites recently reported. You’ll need 30 bottles to get enough credit for one trip, which can be deposited into special fare machines at certain stations. This initiative is part of an effort by Mayor Virginia Raggi to incentivize greater collection and recycling of plastic in her city and follows a similar move by Istanbul, Turkey, last year.

It’s not just European cities either. Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia, a country which happens to be the second largest source of oceanic plastic pollution, launched a similar scheme last year. There, five plastic bottles or 10 plastic cups gets you a two-hour bus ticket, and each bus can collect up to 7.5 tons of plastic a month.

"There has been a good response from the public," Franki Yuanus, a Surabaya transport official, told Agence France Presse (AFP). "Paying with plastic is one of the things that has made people enthusiastic because up until now plastic waste was just seen as useless." Surabaya’s system allowed buses to double as collection facilities and is one of many reasons the city won awards for being an eco-friendly model for the global south.

Istanbul, Rome and Surabaya’s moves are efforts by city governments to tackle what has become a massive crisis. Plastic pollution has, in the past few years, become a major global concern. The stakes are high, as a study released in 2016 by the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy shows our stark future. If we don’t make drastic changes soon, by 2050 our oceans could have more plastic in them than fish.

Of course, recycling is just one part of the solution. We also need to massively reduce the production and use of single-use plastics. We would need less water bottles if tap water was potable, or if there were more refillable water stations everywhere, for example. Shifting from plastic bottles to more efficiently recyclable materials, like aluminum in the case of PepsiCo, is another step. In fact, companies need to lead and do a lot more to solve a problem that they created.

“To put an end to the plastic pollution crisis, corporations need to step up with meaningful, game-changing and authentic measures that would significantly reduce their plastic footprint and move our societies away from the scourge of single-use, throwaway and problematic plastic packaging,” said Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the #Breakfreefromplastic campaign, in a press statement.

For Rome, Istanbul and Surabaya, though, it’s not just about plastic. These cities are also trying to get more users to take public transit, which can reduce the number of cars on the road. That means less congestion, and less greenhouse gas emissions, especially important for cities like Rome which, back in 2017, pledged to be fossil fuel-free by 2030.

Other cities are taking this to the next level—doing away with payments, by cash or plastic, entirely. Dunkirk, a city of 200,000 in northern France, made public transit completely free back last year, as has Tallinn, Estonia, and the entire country of Luxembourg. Their goal is to get more people out of cars and onto more sustainable transit modes—buses, trams, and trains. There’s momentum stateside too, as Los Angeles is considering a similar move soon. The focus in LA is a planned congestion pricing scheme, which would tax vehicular traffic entering urban areas.

Considering that plastic is manufactured from fossil fuels, most often petroleum, making transit free—or de-facto free— through plastic collection schemes can reduce emissions and waste while putting cities on the path toward meeting their sustainability goals. Now we just need more cities and companies to ramp up efforts to ensure all the plastic we produce is recovered and recycled.

Image credit: Dan Visan/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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