The newsletter to fuel — and thrill — your mind. Read for deep dives into the unmissable ideas and topics shaping our world.
Nov 30, 2021
It is all around us and forever by our side. Perpetual plastic. Like most things in life, it’s good in small quantities — think about what it has done for medicine — but we’re now addicted to it, and with a lifespan of between 20 and 500 years, the most revolutionary material humans have ever invented has gone from blessing to curse, killing our planet along the way.
The good news is that single-use plastics (think bags, straws, forks and knives) are being outlawed in many countries and momentum is growing for a U.N. treaty that would force governments and companies to take more responsibility. The bad news is that no measure seems to be enough, and with the COVID-19 pandemic exponentially increasing the plastics we discard, the future's looking bleak. But don’t despair just yet: Some of the world’s biggest brains are coming up with plenty of pretty bold solutions. Meet them, and their amazing ideas, in this today’s Daily Dose.
-Based on Reporting by Josefina Salomon, Senior Reporter
Past Perfect, Future Proof?
The one material we can hardly live without might end up finishing off our planet.
1 - You Did What?
Believe it or not, it was a lot of hard work, and a bit of chance, that brought us synthetic plastics as we know them today. Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland was actually looking to create a natural electrical insulator when, in 1907, he invented the plastic material he named Bakelite. It was quickly marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” as it could be shaped into pretty much anything. Since then, scientists have continued to develop new plastic-based materials, particularly during the American industrial expansion of the World War II years, that saw the invention of nylon and Plexiglas, which became symbols of modern living at the time.
2 - The Ugly Turn
But as with other conveniences we fall in love with, humanity became addicted to plastic. Global production increased dramatically, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, as rising consumerism and a throwaway culture took hold across the planet. The grim legacy: While a fast food wrapper or a plastic fork is used for a matter of minutes, the material it's made of takes hundreds of years to decompose, often in rising piles of trash. This is a very expensive problem too. The societal cost of plastic, including its production and waste management, cost $3.7 trillion in 2019, a figure that could rise to $7.1 trillion in 2040, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
3 - Plastic Traffickers
Until recently, developing countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. — the two highest producers of plastic per capita — “resolved” their plastic waste problem by sending their trash abroad, mainly to China. But after the country shut its doors in 2017 and others began imposing restrictions over the resulting environmental and health damage, there were fewer available places to dump discarded plastic. An underground market of trash traffickers developed — one that is expanding, according to Interpol — using tactics that resemble those of some drug trafficking organizations (think containers filled with plastic bags and food packaging instead of cocaine). “Waste is a very lucrative business,” explains Virginia Comolli, research manager at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “Countries importing waste often face a tension between not wanting it because it’s an environmental and human hazard but the economic argument saying that they need to make money.”
4 - All Change
Lisa Heinze, a sustainability specialist and researcher, says plastic pollution is a monumental problem that humanity should have foreseen. “Just like other environmental issues, the downside of life-changing technology is only being realized generations later,” she tells OZY. So what’s the way forward? Recycling is just one piece of the puzzle, explains Kate Noble, WWF Australia’s No Plastics in Nature policy manager. “The future of plastics needs to look very different. We need to be using much less of it, using it much more responsibly and keeping each item in the economy for as long as possible so it does not quickly become waste.”
These innovators love turning a problem into a challenge, using a dose of imagination.
1 - Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou
The real cost of owning the latest mobile phone or gadget is a lot more than the price tag. E-waste from discarded electronics is the fastest-growing form of domestic trash in the world and at least 20% of it is plastics. While most of Africa ranks at the bottom of waste-generating — and recycling — nations, several of its countries import what others discard. Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou, an architect from Togo, is taking that trash and transforming it. This tech wizard has built a network of green innovators who worked together to create the first 3D printer entirely from e-waste, and is poised to continue to transform the way we see our old gadgets. Read more on OZY.
2 - Rodrigo García González
Once a symbol of wealth and social status, disposable plastic bottles are now widely despised, and yet we cannot seem to shake the addiction of carrying them around. Around the world, nearly 1 million of these bottles are purchased every single minute. That’s the equivalent of a pile half as tall as the Eiffel Tower, every day. Entrepreneur Rodrigo García González and his partners at Skipping Rocks Lab came up with a bold fix: wrapping water in edible pouches. The spheres, inspired by a technique perfected by renowned chef Ferran Adría, are mainly made of algae. Once in your mouth, they melt, releasing the liquid, and the rest is up to you to eat or discard: It will naturally decompose in four to six weeks.
3 - Margarita Martínez Gil
Known as Mexico’s answer to Greta Thunberg, this 20-something activist has for years been campaigning against plastic waste. But it’s not only protesting or picking up trash at the beach that this sustainable engineering student does to save the planet. She is one of the brains behind a project looking to create eco bricks to use in building environmentally friendly houses. Made of plastic bottles filled with single-use plastics, these bricks are resistant to earthquakes and drastic temperature shifts, which makes them particularly suitable for Mexico and Central America.
The situation is pretty dramatic but before you despair, check out these bold ways forward.
1 - Plastic Against Climate Change
Yes, that’s right. Several countries in Europe have been trying to fight plastic pollution with chemistry, breaking apart the eternal material into its building blocks for reuse. Sounds too complex? It’s not. Netherlands-based Fuenix Ecogy, for instance, is working with Dow Chemical Co. to supply the company with raw materials made from recycled plastics that Dow Chemical can then turn back into oil. Similar projects are being developed across the Continent, with Dutch company BlueAlp planning to build the region’s first commercial plastic-to-oil plant and several universities researching ways to break down plastic into its individual components.
City after city across the world is banning, or talking about banning, single-use plastics. However, Maya communities in the Central American nation of Guatemala did it years ago — because they had to. The country is among the most affected by climate change and it's caused, at least partially, by waste pollution. The revolution began in 2016 when the mayor of a small town banned single-use plastics, threatening those who fail to comply with heavy fines. While some disagreed at first, the majority didn’t, and San Pedro La Laguna is now largely plastic-free and has also inspired most of the country to follow suit.
The Maya are not alone. A new tribe of eco-conscious global citizens say the key to fixing our “plastic-problem” is to consume less (just check out #ZeroPlastic) and buy green. For example, China is seeing a surge of stores that cater to the new eco-warrior community. Eco-friendly shop owner Carrie Yu says people are slowly coming around to the idea of environmentally responsible consumption, but that for plastic pollution to be the exception rather than the rule, more needs to be done. “We need to build the true cost of managing plastic waste into the price of the product,” she tells OZY. “The global problem of plastic needs a global solution. A legally binding global treaty is fundamental to a future where plastic is better regulated and managed, and where leakage into nature is eliminated altogether.”
But if you must buy some disposable items, there are planet-friendlier options. You have probably already used sugarcane coffee cups, disposable cutlery made out of avocado seeds and even single-use bags made from Indonesian cassava starch. Here’s another one: A group of Australian innovators are using sheep wool to make ultra-green packaging that they say can keep boxed-items refrigerated around 41 degrees for up to 72 hours or more. The creators of the recyclable and compostable alternative to polystyrene have already won an innovation award for the invention.
OZY is a diverse, global and forward-looking media and entertainment company focused on “the New and the Next.” OZY creates space for fresh perspectives and offers new takes on everything from news and culture to technology, business, learning and entertainment.