Photo: Hillary Daniels / Flickr

This is the third piece in a three-part series about recycling and the efforts of the Plasticity Forum.

By now, you likely know a thing or two about Plasticity Forum. As plastic pollution continues, thinkers and entrepreneurs are grouping together to seek an end to one of human’s greatest dilemmas and to create new means for tidying up the planet.

Two weeks ago, we introduced you to the notions of economy and how plastic is recovered. Then, we talked about plastic’s design, and now, we’ll focus on legislation and policy. The time has come to examine what rules (if any) exist to stop plastic pollution from spreading across the globe like a virus.

Policy Failures the World Over

In America, specific bins, usually white or blue in color, are often placed alongside garbage containers to collect recyclable materials like bottles and glass, and we’re expected to separate waste accordingly. The trouble is, we don’t do this as often as we should, and our policies typically lack strict levels of enforcement. Doug Woodring, Founder of Plasticity Forum, says less than 20 percent of plastic in America is properly recycled, and those not recycling at all are rarely punished.

When it comes to legislation, America usually stands on middle ground. We recycle when we feel like it or if we remember, but policies aren’t as strong as they could be. We’re something of a lukewarm nation, but is it like this for the rest of the world?

Let’s look at one of the largest pollution havens: Southeast Asia. Vice-President of the American Chemistry Council Steve Russell says over half of the world’s plastic pollution stems from this region, and for the most part, recycling legislation is weak or non-existent.

“There are large coastlines,” he explains. “And large populations that have access to goods, but no real ways of recycling or sorting trash. In places like Jakarta and Manila, they’re throwing things in the streets and they’re winding up in the oceans because of storms, wind, rain, etc. There’s really no means for properly collecting trash.”

Steve Davies, a public affairs officer at NatureWorks, confirms what Russell says and mentions that “most plastic pollution in the ocean is coming from countries like China, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. There are no landfills, solid waste policies or infrastructure. Things are usually just dumped, and they blow out across the landscape.”

Davies goes one step further in his explanation, saying that even South Asian countries who dare to enforce some recycling legislation don’t experience the results they should because laws are never made to go any further or work with each other.

“India now has a rule that says all packaging must be compostable,” he says. “But you must also have the composting infrastructure to do something.” Apparently, India does not. He says the law is a step in the right direction and most people are starting to get the message, but it’s going to be a while before real headway is made.

Now, let’s shift our vision towards Europe. Russell says Europe has birthed some particularly strict and rigid recycling rules that put America and South Asia to shame. Surely, it’s enjoying far better results than we are, right?

Wrong. Russell says that while recycling rates are somewhat higher in Europe than in the U.S., they’re not that much better across the board. The levies and penalties one witnesses throughout the continent don’t always work, and there’s a point when recycling just seems to top off regardless of one’s nationality or location.

Participation Varies

This would suggest that the problem lies strictly with people, and to an extent, this is true. Russell believes many people aren’t recycling out of ignorance rather than diabolical intent. Several products are thrown out primarily because users aren’t aware of what can or should be reused.

However, Doug Woodring thinks residents of developing nations are at least eager to learn and pave the way for improvement. They just don’t always have the resources to do it.

“When we came to Shanghai, for example, they were asking things like, ‘What should we do?’ ‘What should we do in our restaurants?’” he says. “They want to make necessary changes; when they figured out information regarding the problems of plastic, they wanted to change.”

But that’s not to say governments aren’t entirely without fault. In the U.S., for example, attitudes are directed towards simply getting rid of waste rather than legitimately dealing with it. Recycling efforts in America occur, but in most instances, putting something in a bin doesn’t guarantee it will be recycled because each district is likely to follow different rules.

“It really depends on your state and county,” Woodring says.

Not all communities have the resources and infrastructure to encourage recycling. (Photo: Elliot Brown / Flickr)

Not all communities have the resources and infrastructure to encourage recycling. (Photo: Elliot Brown / Flickr)

Stuart Clark of the FOY Group says that cities will only use certain types of recycling bins if people show an interest or lobby for them. If lobbying doesn’t exist, local governments aren’t likely to bother. A general recycling bin may be present, and items may be placed inside, but the haphazard sorting tactics that take place after can put a nasty dent in residents’ efforts to recycle certain products. Plastic pieces, cardboard and other items are likely to stay mixed in which each other, defeating the purpose because each product is meant to be handled, stored and reused differently.

This is the wrong attitude to have. If communities never lobbied for protection, would police squads ultimately disappear? What about the army, the navy or the marines? If people stopped asking for clean water, would cities stop trying to provide it? A government works to improve the well-being of its people, and placing limits on recycling efforts in this way is careless and irresponsible.

Paving a Path Toward Plastic Policy

The good news is that some agencies are taking the hint, and doing more to carve a path towards recovery. Davies mentions that the EPA is studying the longevity of plastic products and the repercussions individual items present to various ecosystems. The EPA sees the necessity in studying the life cycle of plastic, while cities tend to look at plastic as litter that once cleaned up, is no longer a credible threat.

The United Nations is also hiring firms like TruCost to assign values to certain plastics and examine their impacts on the environment. Efforts like these have given rise to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which develops labels that companies can place on packages. Consumers are thus informed of how and where specific packaging can be recycled.

Photo: Kevin Dooley / Flickr

Photo: Kevin Dooley / Flickr

Additionally, nations like Australia are taking a particularly unique stance against pollution. As CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC), Trish Hyde has earned the endorsements of the country’s Commonwealth, State and Territory ministers to strategically devise plans for championing packaging sustainability and leading industry change.

“We work in partnership (co-regulation) with all Australian governments to drive the sustainable use and reuse of resources,” she explains. “Our recently launched five-year plan sets ambitious targets on resource efficiency, landfill minimization and leadership. In Australia, we have a set of National Environmental Protection Measures, including one for used packaging, and this is the legislative mechanism that gives the APC its license to influence.”

In the end, blaming a government’s lack of enforcement or a general population leads to wasted time. As one global society, working together to end the threat of plastic pollution is always more productive than simply pointing the finger and sneering.

“We are one earth with one problem,” Hyde says. “Collaboration will always be better than isolated efforts. We need to be active and informed consumers; vigilant, but not accusatory in addressing our own and other’s littering behavior. We must reuse, recycle, and most importantly, dispose correctly.”

If you’d like to get involved with the Plasticity Forum, be sure to check out their upcoming events: Innovating for Scale, Recovery and Reuse in Dallas, Texas on April 21, 2017; and Technology, Design and Knowledge — Driving Plastic Sustainability in Anaheim, California on May 9, 2017.

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