Plastic: A Problem and a Solution

In the beginning of the BGI class, Values and Value Creation, we briefly discussed the viability of John Bordynuik’s JBI Inc., questioning the company’s effectiveness as a solution to the overall problem of environmental plastic pollution. JBI’s Plastic2Oil technology converts unsorted, unwashed plastic waste to usable fuel. This has the potential to divert plastic waste from landfills, but what about the plastic that is not recovered in recycling and enters the environment? Should JBI’s technology revolutionize the way that companies manage plastic waste, and increase the United States paltry plastic recovery rate of 7%, what can it realistically hope to accomplish for the larger global problem of plastic pollution that is altering the health of ecosystems worldwide?

Plastic pollution has documented effects in almost every ecosystem, from camels dying of plastic bag ingestion in the Sahara, to the massive amounts of plastic waste in all of the world’s coasts and oceans. Plastic cannot altogether biodegrade in the environment, yet sunlight does cause it to break into smaller pieces in seawater, making it nearly impossible to effectively remove from the ocean once it has split into small enough pieces.

I recently came across a separate Santa Cruz based environmental non-profit The Clean Oceans Project, whose goal is to attempt to remove larger plastic waste from the ocean. Previous claims and attempts to accomplish this have suffered from a lack of effective techniques. One component of TCOP’s plan for removal involves the use of a similar plastic to fuel conversion technology. The non-profit promotes the use of a scalable conversion system which also uses unsorted, unwashed plastic feed-stock; a system that may also be used on a boat to convert plastic recovered at sea into a self-sustaining fuel source for vessels involved in cleanup.

The practicalities of at-sea cleanup aside, a scalable system may be useful in handling the problem of removing plastic waste that has already entered the environment. Coastlines across the globe are affected by plastic pollution. In particular, island nations face the twofold problems of managing limited landfill space from the waste generated by their population, as well as floating plastic debris washing ashore. In nations with coastlines affected by plastic waste, it could prove useful to employ a smaller-scale, plastic-to-fuel system in a manner that mobilizes remote communities to mine landfills or cleanup coastlines by offering the use of this technology to run their own transportation, public transportation, or farm equipment. A company could invest in a few small-scale units that may be employed on a truck or boat, and make routine stops in coastal communities in order to create usable fuel for that community.  A fraction of the fuel could be given to the community providing the plastic feedstock, and the remaining fraction of fuel could be sold for profit. A model like this has the potential to reduce plastic pollution by encouraging the continued cleanup of coastlines, as well as mining landfills for plastic waste.

As a cautionary note, creating a revenue stream from the continued use of plastic for conversion to fuel has the potential to perpetuate the problem of using plastic as a material for single-use items. The use of fossil fuels recovered from this type of technology still creates CO2 emissions, which would obviously contribute to climate change. The trade-off here would be that a waste material with a near-permanent life in the environment would be put to use. A plan to eventually retire this technology in favor of simply using less plastic in manufacturing would need to be developed and maintained.

Plastic waste needs to be reduced at the source both on a personal level and in legislation by limiting the use of this material for “disposable” products, which lasts in the environment forever. However, the likelihood of this occurring on a large scale and within a reasonable time is slim. An innovative incentive needs to be put forth in order to handle what is now a worldwide pollution problem. Even if significant reduction in plastic production were to occur in the United States and other developed nations, the problem of plastic waste will continue to affect the world’s oceans and coasts in perpetuity without continued local intervention.

Estimates of how much plastic pollution exists in the world vary wildly; however, it is safe to say that there is too much. I think that providing communities the means to create their own fuel by removing waste that degrades their local environment could be an effective tool for environmental education as well as an incentive for stewardship.

0about the author

Skaidra Scholey is a Cohort 11 candidate for BGI’s MBA in Sustainable Systems and is currently living in Santa Cruz, California.  She has a background in international human resources, socioeconomic research, and coastal resource management.  Outside of BGI, Skaidra is an avid surfer and outdoor enthusiast. Her connection with nature drives her passion for the environmental movement and is her motivation to create and affect lasting, sustainable change in the world.

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