Innovative Recycling: How Visionaries Around The World Are Changing The Future Of Plastic Waste

We come into contact with this product every day. It wraps our food, protects our phones, holds our goods, frames our glasses, and – up until 2017 in the U.S. – was even found in our soap. Plastic is arguably the most revolutionary and controversial material the modern world has created.

The lightweight, flexible, durable characteristics of this petroleum-based substance makes it a widely sought-after candidate for a variety of purposes. However, although useful and cost-effective, plastic takes decades to degrade, with a single plastic cup taking over 400 years to decompose. In that time, plastic also has the ability to break down into tiny microplastics that can, in turn, infiltrate our water, our food, and, by extension, our bodies. With only nine percent of plastic worldwide recycled and the remainder incinerated, dumped, and littered, according to the United Nations, innovative recycling solutions are crucial to a future free of plastic waste.

Juxtaposed to plastic is glass, or what some would argue is a possible solution to the plastic problem. Unlike plastic, glass is 100% recyclable, doesn’t retain smell, and is made from natural materials: sand, limestone, and soda ash. Yet, glass is heavier, fragile, and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 31% of it is recycled annually in the U.S. Additionally, when the materials used to construct glass are extracted from coastal ecosystems, they add to the risk of erosion, further exacerbating glass’s footprint left on the environment.

A possible answer to this material conondrum, innovative recycling is fundamental to the future. To better understand both the problem and solutions, Regenerative Travel spoke to leaders worldwide who are leading the charge in innovative recycling – particularly of plastic, glass, and waste – and the associated challenges and solutions as well as their visions for the future. These agents of change include Max Steitz and Franziska Trautmann of Glass Half Full NOLA (Louisiana, USA), Sally Quinn and Darren Andrews of Green Collect (Melbourne, Australia), Chioma Ukonu of RecyclePoints (Lagos, Nigeria), Dr. Imogen Napper (Plymouth, United Kingdom), and Melati and Isabel Wijsen of Bye Bye Plastic Bags (Bali, Indonesia). With their refusal to continue on the current trajectory, we are inspired and excited to see a world with their ingenuity at the helm for a more circular and regenerative future.

Reusable bag held open to reveal its contents of various empty glass containers, presumably for recycling

Regional Challenges and Problems to Solve

Despite combating the same overarching issue of waste and striving to find innovative recycling solutions, these stewards illustrated that there are often unique locational challenges, which ignited much of their initial action. For Steitz and Trautmann, their glass recycling program began over a bottle of wine in college and the stark realization there was no place to recycle their glass, thus resulting in the birth of Glass Half Full in February 2020. “I think being in the south comes with particular difficulties around sustainability. Not everyone wants to take that extra step to recycle or be more sustainable,” Trautmann states. “This has made us become more creative with how we portray recycling and encourage folks to come out and recycle! Additionally, New Orleans is a heavy drinking city so we have no shortage of glass or any other waste.”

For Quinn and Andrews, Green Collect started as an effort within the hospitality industry to divert cork from landfills. Quinn describes, “Over 20 years ago, Darren and I identified a real gap and need for better resource-recovery services. I was working as a social worker and Darren was finishing his environmental studies and we couldn’t stop thinking about how we could make an impact that addressed waste in new ways that promoted respect for both people and planet.” Today, Green Collect has diverted over 1 million items from reaching the landfill and works with a multitude of industries that struggle with waste management. “In Melbourne, we work with businesses, councils, and government departments experiencing the challenge of what to do with their excess or redundant items. More often than not, these items are complex, and can’t simply go in a recycling bin. Items like stationery, folders, or IT equipment.”

Chioma Ukonu of Nigeria says the challenge for her is “logistics, power, and no functional regional government policies on waste recycling.” After spending time abroad and realizing Nigeria had no procedure on waste management, Ukonu founded RecyclePoints in 2012. “That experience motivated us to come back home and develop a waste recycling solution that suits the Nigerian ethos; to address the urban waste management situation we were experiencing in Nigeria. RecyclePoints started in my kitchen and has grown to employ over 45 staff, 229 waste pickers, over 10,000 registered subscribers, and over 30 corporate partners and clients.”

innovative recycling
Photo by: Bye Bye Plastic Bags

Stemming from a curiosity as to why the beach at her nearby home was suddenly sprinkled with plastic, Dr. Imogen Napper has spent her life’s journey as a researcher striving to understand the relationship plastic has on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. “I grew up in a small seaside town called Clevedon, and I never remember there being any plastic on the beach where I grew up. Going back to the same beaches now, I can’t help but notice there’d be plastic nearly everywhere. It’s like plastic confetti all over the sand. I think my curiosity stemmed from where all of this plastic is coming from, what are the different sources, and if it’s happening in my hometown in Clevedon on the beaches where I used to go, where I grew up, this must be happening worldwide. I was able to mold that curiosity into research because I feel that’s the best way I can try and make a change.”

Similar to Dr. Napper’s experience, Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) was founded after sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen witnessed discarded plastic throughout their Bali community. “BBPB started at age 10 and 12 when we saw all the plastic around us. No escape from plastic seemed possible. We saw plastic pollution in our streets, rice fields, rivers, and beaches. So our choice to do something about it was easy. We started without an agenda or business plan. We just did it.” Rather than continue to accept their local situations, all of these visionaries took mitigative action to alleviate the problem. 

Creatively Overcoming Difficulties 

Faced with a multitude of hurdles, these innovators have creatively used their talents, proving difficulties can be best overcome when solutions are tailored. When Chioma Ukonu realized the untapped potential in the nonexistent recycling industry in Nigeria, she knew she would need to include a multitude of stakeholders: individual households, businesses, academic organizations, and waste pickers. Furthermore, she knew the program would need to be incentivized. “RecyclePoints is Nigeria’s foremost waste recycling and social benefit venture that motivates post-consumers to recycle by creating value from their everyday waste. We have developed a POINT-Based incentive model, an application, and an IoT-enabled bin, with which we collect from registered post-consumers recyclables. We then, in turn, reward them with POINTs which can be used to redeem cash and household items (as small as a carton of milk to as big as a flat-screen TV). The collected waste comes to our Collection and Sorting hubs where they are sorted by unemployed women, within the community, before the materials are then processed and sold as raw materials for the production of new items.”

At Glass Half Full NOLA, the unexpected difficulty in innovative recycling has rested in learning how to operationally handle the process. “I studied chemical engineering in college and my co-founder studied political science, so we did not exactly have processing and waste management experience,” explained Trautmann. “It has been scary and exciting trying to find the right machines for our process and learn how to use them and how to fix them.” However, with the community support of “hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors and recyclers,” Trautmann is solving and exposing the alternatives for glass. “One of the ways we use the recycled glass is in new glass products like bracelets, necklaces, cups, and more. Through our organization Nola Alchemy, we are exploring ways to recreate glass products and keep more glass out of landfills.” Additionally, Glass Half Full rebuilds local ecosystems with sand, the recycled end product of glass, which helps to restore Louisiana’s fragile coastline and mitigate natural disasters.

Green Collect, which has successfully instilled new life in 60% of their products, recycled an additional 35% of those materials, and continues to create green jobs for Australian refugees and the disadvantaged. The challenge remains, as Quinn states, with “frustrations of poorly designed products that are difficult to tear down into their material components.” Rather than solely focus on items that can easily be recycled, Green Collect tackles it all. “We’re a not-for-profit social enterprise, providing solutions for the hard-to-recycle items that offices no longer need. Our business has a dual focus: reducing the office waste to landfill created by corporate, council, and government departments, and generating new employment opportunities for people who have experienced disadvantage. Our clients pay on a per kilo rate for the services we offer, and every item collected is then assessed for its highest possible environmental outcome. We generate new employment through the collection and processing of items. The work of resource categorising, testing, dismantling, repairing, and upcycling is labor-intensive, but the rewards are zero waste to landfill and the creation of new ‘green’ jobs.” In conjunction with these efforts, Green Collect taps into the “creative upcycling process” through their two retail stores as well as their online marketplace that includes everything from fashion and furniture to office supplies and electronics.

For Dr. Napper, lack of innovative recycling education, product makeup, and finger-pointing have proven to be challenges. “Innovative recycling is really complicated. For example, your container has to be completely clean before it goes into the recycling stream. If it’s not clean, it can’t be recycled . . . I know it’s changed in the last couple of years, but black plastic can’t be recolored. It could never be white, pink, or yellow plastic again. It could only ever be black. Even knowing the colors of plastic can make it complicated. It’s also knowing that when you recycle something, it can be made into a worst polymer type. It could be a couple of times or a one-time recycling loop and after that, the plastic material that’s been recycled goes into a landfill.” Furthermore, Dr. Napper explains, “The challenge is always making sure that you want to do the right thing. Everyone wants someone to blame, but in a weird and wonderful way, we’re all to blame.”

While the plastic we generally envision is larger than a paperclip, Dr. Napper’s microplastic research is credited with providing the data that established legislation in the U.S. and the U.K. banning facial scrubs embedded with plastic microbeads. “I tested six main brands and we got a lot of replicates. I used to use some of these products and I never considered that they would have plastic in them. When I learned that they did, I assumed it would be the larger bits of plastic that I could see . . . We found that 3 million microplastics could be in one bottle of facial scrub. With one squirt in your hand, there could be over 10,000. So every time you’re washing your face, you’d be washing with 10,000 tiny plastic particles that actually go down the drain, potentially into the sewage treatment works, and then into our ocean. From that research, it created a lot of discussion and steering a lot of discussions in the right direction. For consumers, it taught us that we have a very powerful voice and choice in what we’re doing, especially in educating others.” By focusing the plastic microbead problem within a commonly known consumer product, Dr. Napper unveiled the world of microplastics beyond the lab.

innovative recycling

A Hopeful Future for Innovative Recycling

Recognizing the recycling challenges and variety of obstacles these global leaders face can be overwhelming. Yet, in speaking with each, there is resounding hope for a future more sustainable and regenerative in which we each can do our part. “There’s a really good expression going around how we don’t need a few people being perfect at trying to minimize their plastic input, but rather we need an army of people doing it imperfectly. It’s making sure that people feel part of the journey, and what is accessible and relatable to their lives . . . It’s all about changing our mindset,” argues Dr. Napper.

Echoing this sentiment, Trautmann of Glass Half Full Nola explains, “I definitely see a huge shift towards being more sustainable. Whether we like it or not, it’s definitely becoming trendy . . . I think it’s important to not pressure folks into shifting their entire lifestyle overnight, but encourage people to genuinely think about the plastic problem themselves.” Moving beyond the individual, the shift in manufacturing and capital investment towards sustainable practices and recycling is also unfolding. “In 2021, I’m excited that we are able to work with Mastercard Foundation and Coca-Cola Foundation on the Project DORI (Drop Off Recycling Initiative), which will make recycling more accessible to more communities through the deployment of DORI bins (a proprietary recycling asset),” Ukonu of RecylePoints said. “The waste recycling market in Africa is opening up and developing rapidly, especially the PET bottle market.”

In Australia, the same hope holds true. “We’re excited by innovation towards well-designed items with their next life designed into the manufacturing process,” Quinn states. “The social enterprise sector is growing rapidly both in investment and in impact. As enterprises mature, and as investors see returns on their investment with environmental, social, and community change, we’re excited to be part of a sector that’s really making a difference. We know that businesses like ours, that are driven primarily by a social or environmental purpose, can be a force for good in the world.” For Melati at BBPB, hope for a future consisting of zero waste, sustainable alternatives, and composting will continue to blossom as all stakeholders ask themselves, “Where does it come from and where does it go when I am done using it?”

As we look towards the world’s 51st Earth Day, the creative, innovative, and technological advances made by these pioneers are inspiring and a reminder there is hope ahead and a role we each play in furthering innovative recycling. 

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