Plastic waste: Think globally, act locally

Poor waste-management infrastructure is a major contributor to global plastic waste in the environment, particularly in countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have announced they will no longer accept plastic waste imports. Additionally, rising costs are forcing some municipalities in the United States to suspend recycling programs.

For example, New Orleans notified residents in May of this year that it will suspend recycling of #3 to #7 plastics and accept only #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE). In Maine, Auburn is “mulling” whether to temporarily suspend its curbside recycling program due to rising costs. Missouri’s Perry County entirely suspended its curbside recycling program because of rising costs. Just last week, the small city of Surprise, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix, notified its residents that it will no longer provide curbside recycling due to cost and low demand. It also noted that much of the recyclate collected was dirty and unusable and goes to the landfill, anyway.

Dow has a new initiative, Project Masaro, that could bring some relief: A replicable blueprint for “zero-waste economies,” the project helps communities to convert their plastic waste into valuable resources. “If implemented globally, this framework could reduce costs for local governments and relieve some of the burden on global recycling infrastructures,” said Dow.

Led by Professor Zainal Abidin from the Bandung Institute of Technology (IBT) in Indonesia, Project Masaro has been successfully implemented in a boarding school in West Java.

Dow’s Han Zhang, APAC Sustainability Director, Packaging and Specialty Plastics, spoke with PlasticsToday about this program that creates a local solution for a localized problem. Zhang acknowledged that plastic is an extremely beneficial material to society, given its ability to preserve food and provide lightweight containers, which are “very important to Southeast Asian people,” he said. “Many can only afford small quantities of food, so it is good to preserve food and avoid waste.”

Masaro Project

Zhang believes that localized solutions are needed. “That’s the key to solving the problem. Teach people what can be recycled and how to recycle it,” he commented.  

Plastic waste had been an important import for Asia Pacific countries that relied on these materials from the United States over the past several decades as feedstock to make new products and meet local demand, explained Zhang. “They have the recycling part but not the collection system,” he said. “They can’t meet demand because they can’t collect it. We need to develop a localized system in both the United States and Asia—a localized solution to solve a local problem.” 

Project Masaro started in a local village in Indonesia. Before Dow’s involvement, there was no way to manage waste in the village, so everything was thrown away. All type of solid waste was thrown into the river, or the village would let the waste pile up and find a buyer to burn it, or wait until the rain washed it away into the river. 

“We partnered with Professor Zainal at IBT, and started with education to teach people how to dispose of waste. Waste collection system in the school became primary in four areas,” said Zhang: "Collect food waste; collect recyclable material; collect hard-to-recycle plastic; collect all other kinds of waste."

How to process this waste in each category is the next step after collection. “For the recyclable material, it’s obvious,” said Zhang. “We sell it to a recycler. For hard-to-recycle plastic waste, the professor developed a chemical recycling process for the village. Biomaterials such as leaves, branches and paper can be used as fuel, which powers a pyrolysis unit that recycles certain types of plastic waste. For all organic waste, the professor developed a way similar to composting by adding chemicals into the mix and turning organic waste into a liquid that then becomes a liquid fertilizer.”

Thus far, Project Masaro has trained more than 2,000 students and teachers in proper recycling and waste management behaviors through workshops on collecting, sorting, processing and selling waste by-products. The goal is to eventually train 12,000 individuals in the area and eliminate plastic waste.

Zhang believes that collecting materials that are in highest demand, such as PET and HDPE, is the first step, and that's where education plays an important role: “Get the right recyclable material into the right recycling bin. If they do a good job of sorting and cleaning the material, it will save a lot of time and costs for the recycler and allow an increase in the amount of recycling,” said Zhang.

There is no single answer to solving the problem of plastic waste, said Zhang. There must be a variety of solutions—including waste-to-energy—to provide the answers for the wide range of plastic materials.

“We need PET recycling, because there is good demand and we can’t find enough to meet that demand,” said Zhang. “People should improve the collection of PET and other easily recyclable materials. 

“At Dow we’re working on solutions for difficult-to-recycle multi-materials, such as delamination processed for packaging. One of the directions we’ve taken is developing a 100% PE solution to replace multi-material laminates, making the packaging fully recyclable. This will increase supply of the fully recyclable material.” 

Zhang also pointed out the continued need for oxygen barriers and the current absence of feasible alternatives to barrier packaging. “We want to make sure there is no plastic waste in the environment,” he commented. “We need to figure out new solutions—either new ways to collect or a new way to recycle in order to get the highest value. We also need to leverage other solutions, including waste-to-energy for the hard-to-recycle materials. On the one hand we need to improve the recycling system—collection and recycling methods such as mechanical recycling. On the other hand, we need new recycling technologies, such as chemical recycling. If those don’t work, then waste-to-energy is a way to capture the energy value from plastics. Ideally there will be a combination of solutions,” said Zhang.

Perhaps we in the industry have made recycling of plastics too difficult with the seven numbers, each one applying to a different polymer material. Maybe we should give confused consumers two recyclable items—PET (water bottles) and HDPE (milk and juice jugs) and find different options for the other five numbers. Let’s face it, if it’s not working, it’s not worth the time, energy and cost it takes to ultimately throw 70% of “recyclable” materials into landfills.

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