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Innovations and good practice for a plastic-free world

It has been a symbol of progress for decades. We are now fully aware that it's a pollutant. Doing without plastic is possible...

by Sara Sangermani
05 February 2020
9 min read
bySara Sangermani
05 February 2020
9 min read

Plastic is present in all aspects of our everyday lives. Thankfully, we are now fully aware of the impact of the indiscriminate use of this material. For example, following on from the shopping bag, the bags used for fruit and vegetables have also now become biodegradable throughout Italy and, in addition, many of us have started to use fabric shopping bags. It is largely thanks to a European regulation, banning the use of plastic bags, that has forced the large retail outlets to find a more sustainable alternative. However, despite these efforts there are some sectors that have really taken their time to adopt measures to reduce the use of plastic. One of which is the hotel industry. According to research, the hotel industry in the United Kingdom alone generates almost 300 tonnes of waste, including plastic. The same study also revealed that 40% of the hoteliers interviewed were aware of the problem. The solutions for solving the problem are well-known, but unfortunately very few are implementing them. For example, there are numerous single-use products that are made of biodegradable material, such as cutlery and cups. Furthermore, there is a very simple alternative to the miniature toiletries that are provided in hotel rooms and are often just wasted: install dispensers. And there are other products, like shower caps that are now being made of bio-compostable materials that can clearly be substituted with more eco-sustainable materials. Many hotels, while the wait for legislation aimed at this sector goes on, are already taking steps to reverse the trend and are making the move towards offering completely plastic-free rooms.


Change also depends on us

Starting to not use single-dose products or refusing to drink with a plastic straw is the first step towards sending a strong signal to anyone who still underplays the incredible impact that the excessive use of this material is having on the planet's fragile ecosystem. Around 8 million tonnes of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year which, due to ocean currents, gathers together into 5 gigantic collection points, the so-called gyres. Charles Moore, the famous oceanographer who was the first to discover the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (an enormous floating rubbish dump that's twice the size of Texas) estimated that it would take around 79,000 years to fully clean the oceans of all the plastic they contain. This is all causing extremely serious damage to the marine ecosystem with millions of species at risk and millions of fish and seabirds dying every day as a result of the pollution. Furthermore, the fish are feeding on the plastic that infests the waters, ingesting toxic substances which naturally enter our food chain when the fish ends up on our dinner table.

Stan Boyan, born in 1994, came up with a solution for cleaning the seas after realising, while diving in Greece, that there was more plastic in the sea than fish. After working on a project at school which didn't work, Boyan consulted with scientists and experts from the Universities of Delft, Utrecht and Hawaii and he studied a system of floating barriers (booms) attached to the seabed which would exploit the currents so as to filter the waste and gather it onto a platform. That was 2012 and Boyan presented his idea to the world. At just 18 he gave his first TEDx Talk in Delft.

Six months later, in 2013, he decided to give up studying Aerospace Engineering at the Delft University of Technology and set up his own company, Ocean Cleanup, with an initial capital of €300. Thanks to a crowdfunding initiative that raised $90,000, the Ocean Cleanup project was up and running. On 22 June 2016, Ocean Cleanup deployed its first 100-metre-long barrier around 23 km off the coast of Holland. This was a prototype and the data collected during tests in the North Sea enabled the Ocean Cleanup engineers to replace the standard inflatable floats used for collecting oil, with rigid HDPE tubes. On 29 August 2017, Boyan announced that they had gone from a moored system to a floating system and he estimated that this technology would be capable of cleaning the ocean in 5 years. And it seems that the invention works: indeed, for the first time the long floating rope has gathered up some drifting marine waste. The announcement was made via a tweet, with a photo of the rubbish that had been collected from the waters of the Pacific.

The Ocean Clean Up

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Another extraordinary innovation from the United States

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a revolutionary plastic that is capable of being recycled an unlimited number of times, whilst maintaining its inherent plastic properties such as its consistency and colour. It's called PDK (or polydiketoenamine). Plastic is not a naturally occurring material and making it requires the addition of various components (which are different for bottles and shopping bags, for example) which have an impact on the quality of the plastic and the ability to recycle it. A material that is not completely recyclable is, from an environmental standpoint, waste. Waste disposal systems are useful, but they are only applied to the “effects” of a problem whose roots lie in the production phase, and the PDK breakthrough helps by making it possible to separate the other non-recyclable substances. The real innovation of PDK plastic is that "intruder" substances can effectively be removed from the plastic. When immersed in an acid, PDK decomposes into monomers, breaking away from the chemical additives that make other plastic materials only partially recyclable. By recovering the original monomers, PDK is 100% recyclable and therefore overcomes the limitations with respect to reusing products, thus making it a “circular material”. Brett Helms, the main author of the study that led to the findings, said the following in an interview: “We’re at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernise recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing. If these facilities were all designed to handle PDK, then we would be able to avoid having all that plastic ending up in landfill or in the oceans.”

Africa submerged in plastic (including ours)

Africa, the poorest continent in the world, is submerged in plastic (including ours), how is it going to attempt to solve this huge problem?

In Hawassa, Ethiopia, approximately 280 km south of Addis Ababa, plastic has engulfed the volcanic lake where hippos swim among floating bottles and fish “survive” on microplastics. However, for a number of years a project has been running to improve the situation in Hawassa, which has now become a major city. The objective of the “One hundred percent plastic” project, run by CIFA Onlus, is to encourage the separated collection of waste plastic in the local area. Thanks to “One hundred percent plastic”, local families have become the “collectors” of used bottles: from this collection, the bottles – a tonne per day – are then crushed and packed into plastic bales at a facility on the outskirts of the city, in Hawassa Wubet. The city’s schools and university have spread the word about the project through children's theatre shows and educational laboratories. Furthermore, the project mainly involves women, offering local families a better standard of living and enabling them to keep their children in school.

In addition, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 30 women transform plastic into new items for sale and reuse. An important opportunity that combines the fight against poverty with protecting the environment, giving a source of income and employment for the more marginalised sections of society whilst also providing a resource for the local economy. Another excellent initiative comes from Kenya, where recycled plastic “sails” the ocean for 500 km to reach Zanzibar: it's the first dhow, a traditional East African vessel with a triangular Arabian sail, made entirely from recycled plastic. This multi-coloured dhow is not just made from recycled bottles, but also 30,000 flip-flops (hence why it's called “Flipflopi”) collected from the streets of Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi as well as the beaches of Lamu. Built with yellow, red, blue, white and green planks recovered from 10 tonnes of waste, this little sailing boat is an ocean-going cacophony of colour.