The world is waking up and taking action against plastic pollution as it continues to grow; some with policies to reduce the use of disposable plastic, and others with sustainable solutions to address plastic waste.
July 13, 2020
The world is finally in a panic over plastic waste, which is just as it should be.
The latest move – on March 1 – saw New York state, in the United States, introduce a total ban on retailers distributing single-use plastic bags.
In January, China – one of the world's biggest users of plastic – announced that the use of non-degradable plastic bags will be banned in its major cities by the end of this year and in all other cities and towns by 2022.
Thailand, which began the year with a ban on single-use plastic bags at major stores, aims to oversee a complete ban in 2021 to help reduce plastic waste polluting the sea.
Last May, the Malaysian government said it was sending back about 3,000 tonnes of waste that it had received for processing from nations including the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, Spain, Canada and Germany. “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world,” Yeo Bee Yin, the country’s environment minister, said.
So, what’s causing this global frenzy? Why are authorities around the world now in damage-control mode?
The amount of plastic we have on Earth at present is staggering. Over eight billion tonnes of plastics have been produced since the 1950s, experts say.
Of these, 79 per cent has ended up either in landfills or the natural environment including the world’s oceans, according to the UN Environment.
If this trend continues, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
The problem of plastic waste was especially jarring for Indonesian “ecopreneur” David Christian only in 2015 – when he returned to Jakarta after studying in Canada for four years at the Canadian College in Vancouver.
“If I hadn’t left to live in an environment that’s mostly clean – and seen with my own eyes that other world – I don’t think I’d have even noticed the amount of trash in my home city,” Christian, 27, says.
“I was so used to the surroundings; it was my norm for a long time.”
A huge part of the city’s rubbish comprises plastic waste, says Christian, who was born in the Javanese city of Bandung, 140km (85 miles) southeast of Jakarta.
Yet that should surprise few people; Indonesia is the world’s second-largest contributor of plastic waste in the world’s oceans after China, according to a 2015 study by United States-based Jambeck Research Group.
In fact, about half of all of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five developing countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – where rapid economic growth also meant higher consumption of plastic goods.
The issue becomes increasingly dire when some of the biggest producers and consumers of plastics are not managing their waste effectively. Plastic waste, which does not break down in the environment, gets ingested by marine animals, blocks waterways and causes flooding, and when burnt, releases harmful toxins and causes air pollution.
Christian was inspired to research the subject of plastic pollution, including how microplastics have already contaminated oceans, rivers and the creatures that live there and – much to his horror – are tainting much of what humans eat or drink.
A recent global survey found that cigarette butts – which contain tiny plastic fibres in their filters – were the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment. This is followed by plastic drink bottles – one million are bought every minute around the world – bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers.
“Previously, I wasn’t aware, so I didn’t care,” he says. “But now that I am, I could not just ignore the problem. I knew I needed to do something – to try at the very least.”
His efforts led to the creation of Ello Jello, a biodegradable, edible cup made of preservative- and chemical-free seaweed, which was the first product created by Christian’s award-winning start-up, Evoware, which he launched in 2016.
“We decided on seaweed because we wanted to use a local and sustainable resource that is readily available in Indonesia,” he says. “Indonesia also happens to be the largest seaweed producer, so it makes perfect sense.
“Ultimately, we wanted to also show that there are fun and attractive alternatives to plastics.” he says. To prove his point, Ello Jello comes in four flavours – orange, lychee, peppermint and green tea.
Christian, who studied international trade, has been working closely with a biotechnologist, Norywati Mulyono, to produce more seaweed-based food and drink packaging that can be used for wrapping burgers or sachets containing things such as instant noodle seasoning, breakfast cereal and a single measure of coffee powder.
They have teamed up with a seaweed farmers’ cooperative in Makassar, a two-hour flight from Jakarta in Eastern Indonesia, which comprises about 1,200 seaweed farmers.
Evoware pays the farmers over 150 per cent more than they had been previously earning.
“It’s important to us to be fair to them because seaweed farmers are not only the most important component of our supply chain, but also the poorest,” Christian says.
Today, Evoware employs a team of 25 staff and has expanded its production to Malaysia. Its range of products now include edible straws, tote bags made of cassava and reusable cutlery made of bamboo.
Evoware says on its official website that the use of its green products has helped to reduce the consumption of more than 15 million single-use plastics.
“We want to be the one-stop solution to the pressing issue of single-use plastics,” Christian says.
In October 2017, Evoware was one of six winners in the Circular Design Challenge, an annual international competition organised by the New Plastics Economy – an initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The competition, which attracted more than 600 entries from innovators from over 60 countries, aims to drive the development of new packaging formats or delivery models that can serve as alternatives to today’s conventional plastic packaging.
The goal, simply, is to reduce plastic waste, which has been known to kill up to one million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles and countless fish each year.
Christian says his work is far from over. At present, many of Evoware’s customers come from Europe and the United States.
“If I want to help Indonesia to solve its plastic waste issues, then I need more local companies to come on board,” he says. “Convincing them, however, is one of our biggest challenges.”
This hurdle has motivated Christian to launch the Rethink Campaign, which aims to educate, inspire and encourage businesses to switch to plastic alternatives by giving them a range of solutions.
“I can’t eliminate plastic waste alone, even with the most ingenious products,” he says. “Collaborations with corporations and even government agencies are important; we all need to be part of this movement.
“We have to come together if we really want to eliminate all of the plastic pollution – and we have to start now.”
Christian is not alone in his aims. On the other side of the globe, the Canadian tech entrepreneur Miranda Wang has found a way to turn plastic waste into valuable industrial chemicals, which can be used to make cars, electronic goods, textiles and cleaning agents.
Wang, a 25-year-old Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureate, has founded her own company, BioCellection, in Silicon Valley, California.
It is currently developing a range of unique technologies to transform soiled, contaminated and unrecyclable plastics, such as polyethylene into renewable, quality chemicals.
Watch Wang’s inspiring story here.
Editor’s note: This article is part of “Explorers of tomorrow”, a four-episode series featuring inspiring individuals who are working to resolve pressing global problems today.
Time is of essence if we are to create a sustainable future. In partnership with Rolex and its Perpetual Planet Initiative, “Explorers of tomorrow” honours a group of dynamic, extraordinary people whose innovative projects are making the world a better place.