The 5 Gyres Institute, upon invitation from the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, was able to tour three cities in Chile to share our research findings and strategies for solutions. We spoke at two universities, two international schools, had meetings with WWF, ASIPLA (plastics industry), Cambiaso (plastic bag recycler), Fundacion de Chile, Fundacion del Mar, Harvard Rockerfeller Center for Latin American Studies, and the Chilean Antarctic Institute. These meetings have opened doors for future high-level collaborations on education and research objectives. Research may include ecological impacts of plastic pollution along coastal Chile, citizen science monitoring of microplastics, and exploration of microplastic migration into coastal Antarctica. Education opportunities may include an International Youth Summit in Coquimbo in 2017, which would bring 100 youth from across Chile and the US to learn about plastic pollution solutions.
Here in Punta Arenas, Chile, on the bank of the Strait of Magellan, you can almost see Tierra del Fuego, the “End of the World”. A little further south and then next landfall is Antarctica. These waters are where the S. Atlantic and S. Pacific meet, where one subtropical gyre pours into another. I took a short walk along the bank of the strait after this morning’s talk at the University of Magallanes. What I’m struck with is how ubiquitous the problems of plastic pollution are around the world. There are problems of waste management, problems of poorly designed products and problems of poor public awareness. It’s the same triad of responsibility: government, industry, people.
I sat with the Chilean director of WWF Ricardo Bosshard at the university to talk about plastic pollution with an audience of students. I was impressed to learn more about the Chilean national EPR bill. Referred to as Responsabilidad Extendida del Productor (REP), it is hotly contested, but a huge step above many countries around the world. REP puts the industries that create plastic packaging and products responsible for the recovery of their materials. The challenge, everyone says is, “People are so geographically spread out over the country, that it’s difficult to get waste or recyclables back to where they can be managed.” This echoes a comment from Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, who told me in a meeting last month, “Recycling isn’t a problem of technology. It’s a problem of transportation.
While Punta Arenas has banned plastic bags, they have almost no recycling infrastructure, which frustrates some of the student groups I met that want to start programs on their campuses but don’t want to see their collected and sorted materials go to the eventual dump. But the REP has the potential to be a nation-wide game changer. One element of it seems to be able to address the problem of transportation from remote places, like Punta Arenas, by holding producers of goods responsible for the recovery of a volume of plastic relative to their production. The idea is that a company monetarily incentivizes recovery of plastic, which would give anyone anywhere the motivation to collect and store their plastic until there’s enough to deliver to where it can be managed, likely in capital city Santiago.
What this aspect of REP will also do is motivate producers to design easier systems of recovery or design products with less packaging so that they simply don’t have to deal with recovery. Either way, REP stands to be a potential model for the International community to deal with plastic pollution.
(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)