Rethinking the use of plastics is vital for business today – Kiran Dhanapala

Year 2019 may well be remembered as a time when the world turned against plastic. We have seen too many pivotal pictures of  plastic waste accumulated on land and in our oceans, and animals pathetically choking to death. The emotive reactions these poignant pictures evoke are often more powerful than the dozens of credible reports on plastic published in the last 18 months.

We seem to need both to shift us onto a new trajectory of change. And this change is underway. However, given that the world has only 12 years – as we know it – in the face of escalating climate change impacts, stretching targets to 2030 is not an option.

Plastic is a good illustration of the perils of the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. Single-use plastics are the most damaging and commonly found in the environment. A 2018 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report notes that the most commonly found – in order of magnitude – include cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, bottlecaps, food wrappers, grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags and foam takeaway containers.

The disposal of plastic creates substantial costs known as ‘externalities’ to our economies. This includes blocking waterways and sewers, which leads to a higher degree of transmission for mosquitos and pests; contributing to increased health risks; blocking the airways and stomachs of animals – including ingestion by fish and transfer into the human food chain; and leaching of toxins from plastics, which poses risks to human health whether from open-air burning or containers in water and soil.

Indeed, the economic damage associated with plastic waste is substantial.

According to a 2018 UNEP  report, plastic litter in Asia-Pacific costs the region’s tourism, fishing and shipping industries US$ 1.3 billion annually. The cumulative economic damage to the global marine ecosystem is a minimum of 13 billion dollars a year. Concerns have built up into a global anti-plastic resistance movement that seemingly began with plastic straws.

Individuals and companies are rethinking their use of plastics with vital implications for how future business is conducted.

The trend includes personal anti-plastic use pledges and corporates setting public targets to phase out plastic use. Bans on single-use plastic have also come into play. American cities such as Seattle, states including Hawaii and California, and the likes of the EU have commenced the phasing out process through legislation.

A circular economy is one where plastics won’t become waste as less of it will be used, recycled or reused; or where more sustainable alternatives are used. For this shift to be successful, we need education, commitment and incentives, to scale up technology access and use to address the problem.

Technology is our best bet in transitioning away from a linear model for plastics. And there are many innovations that can inspire us to move to the new plastic (free) economy.

The Leg – an affordable prosthetic leg system designed to enable more movement and flexibility that’s made from African plastic waste – was designed by two Swiss industrial design students through Project Circleg, which is their social business.

And Tupperware – a maker of food storage and serving goods – is introducing certified circular polymers into its products to promote a circular economy from 2019 onwards. It has also developed a portable reusable straw and cup to encourage the reduction of single-use plastics.

Local government infrastructure can promote a circular economy by diverting waste from landfills through reuse. Australia’s Sustainability Victoria with Swinburne University of Technology developed a new method of concrete pavement construction using small particle recycled glass and plastic bottles.

In the meantime, Chilean company Solubag has deve-loped a water-soluble single-use plastic bag made with calcium carbonate and natural gas (not petroleum derivatives). It withstands rain and temperatures of 40 to 50ºC. This is the first low-cost option for the public with sales expected later this year at major retailers in Chile, Europe and the US.

Interesting and innovative efforts are underway here in Sri Lanka but they need more social investors to scale up similar efforts.

Waste Less Arugam Bay (WLAB) runs a PET plastic waste segregation and collection service that reuses plastic bottle tops to make souvenirs, and has a network of reverse osmosis water filtration systems.

It involves the community and travellers in the area, and educates and raises awareness on the dangers of single-use plastics such as straws. Funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Rice & Carry, it demonstrates a social business focussed on the ‘three Rs’ of conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature made an urgent call for all of us – government, business, civil society and consumers – to be accountable across all sectors. Making profits by selling more while also improving the environment may seem like cognitive dissonance.

Yet, leadership in many companies has evolved to use improved technologies, and build better systems and supply chains to enable industry to use these for a safer planet.