Yes that is my actual foot size. But not my actual plastic footprint (hopefully). Besides mapping plastic pollution in rivers and educating folks on boat trips, I also work on helping companies to disclose their plastic use. Environmental reporting and certification has become increasingly popular. Some experts estimate there are over 1,000 different labels all across the earth. But we need one more!
The Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) is a questionnaire that guides institutions in disclosing their plastic use. Unlike some certification schemes, PDP is free, has explicit connections to other reporting schemes, and might actually save the company money. However, these benefits do not make it any less difficult to measure your plastic shoe size.
For those who hate reading here is a video:
Determining the quantity of plastic a business or institution uses (in operations and waste) is incredibly complex. Take a moment to quantify the amount of plastic you use. Seriously do it. Some objects stand out, like plastic bottles (which you shouldn’t use), tooth brushes, or plastic bags. Single use or obviously plastic items stand out a bit more than other items. Maybe you even dispose of that product in a specific bin for plastic. But how much plastic by weight is in those products? It gets even more confusing when you think about all the different kinds of plastic embedded in a single product like an automobile or computer. This doesn’t even address the catalysts or additives utilized during plastic production.
Now multiply this complexity across an entire supply chain. Then convince each link in the chain to submit information to you.
But important! Recently a study demonstrated a correlation between poly vinyl chloride (PVC) piping and developing kidney stones as well as other serious diseases. Worryingly, most of this PVC has been built into structures already and it will be extremely costly in the short term to remove it. How could anyone even identify all the homes with this contaminated PVC? Anticipating increasing health and environmental impacts of plastic PDP encourages companies to proactively disclose their plastic use. It also becomes critical if governments continue to debate a carbon tax, suddenly plastic isn’t as economic a material if regulations cause the price to destabilize further.
With disclosure, stakeholders can support companies with plastic profiles they agree with and reward transparency. Plastic legislation will only continue to grow as new impacts are documented. Anticipate change, rebuke subjugation.
Plastic of course has environmental benefits. Don’t call me a turncoat! After spending a semester researching their environmental costs of plastic on the environment and now a summer exploring the benefits my mind has changed. The Impacts of plastic products are not binary, the benefits and costs of a product are not unidirectional. Paper, glass, and metal are all very heavy forms of packaging relative to plastic. Weight adds fuel costs and limits the amount of a product you can send. Those materials also make it difficult to send certain products to certain geographies because of climate, disease, or other factors. Plastic has serious health benefits in the short term for food transportation, and is revolutionizing drastically improving fuel efficiency in transportation. Portions of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner are made of a composite plastic made of a hybrid plastic that reduces fuel usage by 20% from previous models.
With complex costs and benefits its best to analyze plastic use on a case by case basis. PDP provides a vector for companies to publish both challenges and successes. Transparency opens more doors for collaboration, and creative collaborations will allow businesses to come up with far more exciting innovations than they could independently.
Working with companies to disclose has been exciting. Though I can’t name anyone yet, some of the effort that a few firms have put into understanding their waste stream is simply astounding. Often times it is discouraging to read through a “green washed” sustainability report containing only vague qualitative comments. Some of the companies we work with go a step further and publish hard data. This is a trend to watch because sustainable reporting is about to get a lot more serious. With PDP riding that wave to a more transparent world and a smaller more intelligent plastic footprint. We companies should aim for having a children’s size 2.
What have I been doing for these 2 months in Hong Kong? Two main projects occupy my time: Global Alert (GA) and the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP). Below I will detail what Global Alert is and why it is totally awesome.
One of the main problems with plastic pollution is we don’t really know where it comes from. It’s really hard to solve a problem if nobody identifies the responsible party. Clearly everyone uses plastic so we are all somewhat a fault, but recognizing this doesn’t lead to effective policy. To complicate things further plastic has significant environmental benefits such green house gas reduction, energy conservation, and public health. Still, the many groups are trying to initiate change. Much like climate change, they are trying to initiate a discussion about a future environmental issue based on the precautionary principle.
Currently the conversation goes like this:
“Marine plastic pollution is a problem! It kills birds, fish, and turtles. It contains pollutants and will harm human health!” – Says the environmental advocate.
“ Oh really? How much is entering the environment? What kind? Where from? “– A concerned citizen.
“80% is estimated to come from land based sources. And the vast majority is single use plastic! ” – Said the United Nations Environment Programme report on Marine Debris! (emphasis added by author)
“What sources? Plastic is commonly recycled, and litter is a behavioral problem, not a plastic problem” – says the plastic producers of the world.
And that’s pretty much where it stops. Nobody really knows which cities contribute most, or if there are particular policies that have had an influence. The true effectiveness of plastic bag bans is uncertain, and even if plastic bags are totally removed there is still tons of other waste entering the sea. It’s unclear what the baselines levels of pollution are. A data gap the size of the garbage patch, I could spend the rest of this page describing what we don’t know. (clarification: it is not a contiguous raft of garbage, but actually a super dense soup of plastic with particles ranging in size from 1 nano mater to 1 milimeter .
In comes Global Alert! GA is a community based participatory GIS program for public advocacy and local stakeholder engagement. In non-policy speak its Google-maps for plastic trash in rivers. For social media users it’s Instagram for trash.
(Photo from previous version)
Essentially anyone can upload data about the trash they find along a river, shoreline, or coast to a public map. The tagline is “See Share Solve”. See the trash, share the trash, and then solve the trash. Visuals have a big impact, it’s one thing to be told we are littering, it’s another to see all of the litter with pictures, weights, and coordinates. People can then visualize the amount and severity of plastic pollution entering the ocean. If a non-profit is interested it can claim an “impact area” and become responsible for managing the data in that region. They can also upload information about mitigation practices such as trash booms or public cleanups.
“Well that’s a cool project Nate but what do you do?” Thanks for asking! I am the project manager. What that means is that I coordinate calls, emails, and designs across four countries! I have met plenty of translators at the Monterey institute who have repeatedly explained to me how hard translation between languages is, but they never mentioned how challenging it could be to translate across disciplines. They might as well be different language! It may surprise you to learn that designers and programmers think very differently. Besides communication I also work on the overall visual design and user experience, so people from 10 to 10,000 years old can all use GA together.
Overall it has been an intensely dynamic and fun project to work on. Every day is something new to think about it, and a real test of my management skills.
I would like to post current pictures to show you all, but that would steal a lot of thunder from the launch that happens at the end of August. So stay tuned because it’s going to be awesome. And when GA does go live, make sure you start See-Share-Solving!
Many people ask me why I am interested in trash. It is a strange interest by conventional standards and even within environmental policy it is a bit fringe. Often I just say “Waste management has huge impacts on the environment and is inherently interdisciplinary, thus it is dynamic and fascinating”. But what I want to say is “waste is the dark mirror of modern societies’ ravenous consumption, paralleling every purchase is the eventual destruction of that product which is often ignored, once used these items are simply thrown ‘away’, wherever that is.” The impacts are larger than sea turtles with six pack rings around their necks (though that is awful). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) “approximately 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the energy used to produce, process, transport, and dispose of the food we eat and the goods we use.” What happens during the life-cycle of a product has profound impacts on the natural world, no matter how “unnatural” that product seems. Understanding how ecosystems work is critical for conserving them. At the same time understanding human systems is equally important for environmental protection. We don’t study waste management because dolphins can’t figure out recycling. It’s a human matter.
As these costs of waste continue to grow we are also presented with tremendous opportunity. The Ellen Macarthur foundation reports that: a transition to a circular economy (waste becomes the inputs for new products/ services) would net a 2 trillion USD profit, and that doesn’t even get into the non-market benefits! A truly circular economy would mean nothing is “wasted” and we do not need to extract further from natural ecosystems. It would also mean increased efficiencies and stable prices for certain commodities with co-benefits cascading into other sectors. As Utopian as this sound we are approaching a circular economy with some materials. Steel for example has reached a recycling rate of 92% in some areas. This has taken considerable time and effort on the part of manufacturers and required public private partnerships as well as strong communication to make it possible.
One of the main limitations to reaching a circular economy is that waste products often have little commercial value, or if they do have commercial value it is uneconomic to extract them from the waste stream. In a better world we might recycle because it is the right thing to do, but that isn’t really why we do it or why people started. In places with lots of land like the United States these resources are buried in landfills, locked away from the industrial cycle, necessarily requiring more virgin materials to be extracted. Don’t lose hope, the US does have an average recycling rate for municipal solid waste (household trash) of 34.7% (with considerable variation between and within states). In places without a lot of land like Taiwan, Japan, or Korea they use advanced recycling programs and incinerators to turn trash into a marketable product and energy. In the case of Hong Kong, they just do nothing. HK’s landfills will be full in six years and plans to extend them have stalled. There are no incinerators and no comprehensive recycling plans (HK does have a “waste blueprint but nothing with teeth). Hong Kong is not unique in its inability to deal with waste at a government level, as a result entrepreneurs are starting to capitalize on this gap and process the material themselves. MBA Polymers disregards government shortcomings and recycles unsorted durable goods that would otherwise not be recycled such as electronics and automobiles. Since MBA Polymers is doing something economic, environmental, and social they are worth talking about.
Mike Biddle is the champion and founder of MBA Polymers. He refers to landfills as “above ground mines” and has a great TED talk.You may be thinking, why is this important? It is incredibly difficult to recycle multiple kinds of plastic from the same product. It is easy to recycle if it is just a pure stream. Water bottle vs laptop, which is easier to recycle. Plastic can be any color, can’t be separated by magnets, and are incredibly difficult to sort by hand. There is a “smell test” some Chinese and Indian plastic recyclers have developed. To test the plastic they burn it with a lighter and apparently can differentiate plastic based on the odor, but as you can imagine this is not a healthy way to sort plastic. Worse yet plastics are often fully mixed into other products making them impossible to feasibly separate unless you burn them apart or burn them to get the more valuable metals inside. “Cancer villages” as they have been dubbed operate all throughout China and parts of Africa (and likely many other parts of the world as well but China and Africa remain the most well documented, for photos go here for academic info on Nigeria go here)
MBA Polymers doesn’t think it makes sense to have people in huts burning computers inhaling toxic fumes. So they take in loads of scrap, shred it, optically sort it with machines, do some proprietary magic, and then churn out high grade plastic. Just look at these products . You can see your face in the printer which is a rare feat for recycled plastic.
Creating high grade plastic for consumer goods is important because currently the industry dislikes recycled plastic, and for good reason. Recycled plastic often has a variety of colors, textures, and strengths because it is a composite of many different kinds of plastic. Sometimes even the same kinds of plastic will have different additives leading to a different end result. What if you bought an Iphone and the case was pockmarked with random colors, textures, and roughness. Maybe since you are reading this blog you are somewhat environmental and wouldn’t care opting for the more sustainable purchase, but the vast majority of people would see this as a fault of the product and buy a competitor. The low commercial value of using recycled plastic is a hindrance. For products that do use recycled plastic such as Method Soaps Ocean Plastic (also a speaker at Plasticity) 25% of the bottle is made of beach trash the rest recycled plastic, but they still can’t make the bottle transparent. Or really any other color than black. This doesn’t matter for low end products like plastic wood or speed bumps but it does matter for most of the other products consumers come in contact with.
Customers want transparent plastic, even MBA Polymers is not at a stage where they could economically do that. If all plastic was perfectly sorted into its different types and additives we could turn it back into plastic of the same grade. Unfortunately waste streams are complicated, citizens are ill informed, and governments face tremendous hurdles rectifying this. At the same time consumers don’t directly feel the impacts of wasted plastic. Most people don’t see gargantuan drills miles deep punching through the seabed to extract crude oil. Or a seabird regurgitating plastic into a young gull’s mouth. But there are some progressive individuals who are ahead of the curve, who see a better way, who think that we can have a circular economy and don’t need to keep extracting more material. It takes a change in economic incentives, talented individuals, and progressive governments but we are starting to see that it is possible. Its not waste until its wasted.
Plasticity is the adaptability of an organism to change in its environment; it’s also a conference on plastic. Despite its multitude of uses plastics as an industry has been very inflexible when it comes to working with outside stakeholders. However with the conclusion of Plasticity I can safely say that trend has been bucked. Plasticity is a conference that brings together a range of diverse groups: designers, plastic manufactures, recyclers, policy makers, artists, students, and just plain folks to share creative ways of adapting plastic for use in a more environmentally conscious and economically concerned environment. This group of dreamers is revolutionizing plastic to increase its plasticity for a changing world.
Yes plasticity is a conference on plastic. But this isn’t a typical trade show, its people coming together to discuss the most far reaching advancements of plastic, ways it can be better managed, and perceptions about it that need to change. The audience was highly interdisciplinary. Speakers didn’t focus on the negatives of plastic in the environment, instead they emphasized the benefits of plastic and the barriers that prevented it from being more effectively utilized.
Just glancing at the speaker list illustrates how diverse this conference was:
|Steve Rochlin||Co Founder and Senior Partner of IO Sustainability|
|Dr. Ulrich Liman||Vice President of Production and Development of Bayer Material Science|
|Steve Davies||Director of Nature Works|
|Dasdy Lin||Plastic Industry Development Center, Taiwan|
|Patricia Gallardo||Global Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Shangri- LA Hotels and Resorts|
|Mike Biddle||MBA Polymers|
|Arthur Huang||Director of Miniwiz|
|Phil King||Chief Person Againt Dirty – Method|
|Merjin Everaarts||Founder of The Dopper Foundation|
|Paul Rose,||Explorer, BBC Presenter, Vice President Royal Geographic Society|
|Ms Christine Loh||Under Secretary for the Environment Hong Kong SAR|
|Illiac Diaz||Founder One Liter of Light|
*I will focus on the bolded speakers and their industries more in subsequent posts.
One speaker not listed that I want to focus on is Ryan Cheung. This Hong Kong high-schooler made a kayak out of used plastic drink bottles to help raise awareness about the issue of ocean trash. During his talk he lamented that most students don’t worry about plastic waste because they never go out in nature and see it. Ryan however kayaks and sees it every day. He called for more nature education in schools and for more kids his age to get involved. Couldn’t agree more Ryan!
When arriving to Hong Kong I like many Hong Kongers thought that the only activities were shopping, eating, and taking pictures of me doing those things. My co-workers quickly showed me this was not the case by taking me paddling, rowing, hiking, and swimming all across Hong Kong’s numerous protected areas and wild spots. Despite the high levels of protection from land based development plastic waste infiltrates all of these areas. As I tried to unwind on the beach I could not help but be reminded of the plastic trash all around me. But thankfully, plasticity was about solutions.
The next day, we went on a plasticity tour of MBA Polymers. MBA Polymers is Mike Biddle’s (one of the speakers, and one of my inspirations for getting into waste management) company which recycles plastic from solid objects, this particular factory in China specialized in turning electronic scrap plastic into usable high-grade plastic for consumer products. Why is this cool? Plastic has a much higher recycle value than steel or paper but the amount recycled is disproportionately low. That is because we lack the processes to effectively extract plastics from products. It is not magnetic, can be any color, and all plastic has almost the same density. This rules out most traditional sorting methods for recyclables. But somehow MBA Polymers has developed a method to extract and organize the plastic into a high grade product. This changes landfills into what Mike calls “above ground mines”.
The other interesting thing about the factory is that it is in the Guangzhou special economic zone (A province in China with special incentives for manufacturing), which means it is close to sources of electronic waste and close to a majority of the worlds electronic products. Besides having facilities here they also have some in London and Austria, which recycle other products such as car parts or other durable consumer goods.
Of all the environmental problems, marine plastic pollution is one of the most depressing. We all contribute daily to it, the impacts are only increasing, we have effectively done nothing to reduce it, and the environmental damage will last for centuries. Despite that, Plasticity gave me hope. There are incredibly talented people doing whatever they can to make plastic smarter, more healthy, and more sustainable. There is no solution yet, but it’s a valiant start, and we can’t solve plastic pollution if we never even take the first steps.
If you don’t want to read what I wrote check out this summary video of Plasticity 2013
This summer I will be in Hong Kong “Asia’s Global City” working on marine plastic pollution (mostly). My fellowship is with the Ocean Recovery Alliance (ORA) a non-profit in California and Hong Kong dedicated to catalyzing action on marine issues through multi-stakeholder engagement. In layman’s terms we work with businesses and governments internationally to resolve the oceans wicked problems. We tend to shy away from direct confrontational activism and instead seek out dialogue between “conflicting” parties.
Primarily ORA achieves these goals through three projects: Plasticity, Global Alert, and Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP).
Plasticity is an annual conference bringing together a wide range of groups all over the uses of plastic, plastic waste, and new creative ways forward. It happened within a week of me getting to Hong Kong on June 6th. Some pretty cool people came: from a man who claimed that landfills were above ground mines, to someone who makes trash sexy, and even a 15 year who made his own plastic boat. Details to come.
Global Alert is a way to crowd-source trash (participatory GIS for you policy types). Technically it is free public mapping program that allows users to upload data, pictures, and locations about trash they find in watersheds. This is cool because it is incredibly expensive for governments or non-profits to collect this data themselves and people pass by trash in waterways all the time, often with their mobile device nearby. School groups, cleanup organizations, and just regular folks can easily use this program to upload information about a watershed to the map. Once its mapped anyone can use that information to catalyze action, whether that is through sharing a great way to stop trash, inform governments, or ignite community action.
Plastic Disclosure Project guides institutions in making their plastic use transparent. Lots of businesses and institutions are doing good work to reduce their plastic waste yet often lack a suitable venue to share. Or maybe there is an industry that wants to learn about their plastic use for economic reasons. In any case PDP is the natural solution. Voluntary, free, and simple this guide could even be used by schools (psst Monterey!). The private sector is woefully under engaged in the area of sustainable reporting and this is just another way for them to take on environmental responsibility.
My work is mostly in front of a computer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take the time to go out and enjoy Hong Kong’s wonderful nature. Bet you didn’t know 44% of Hong Kong’s land is protected. I will most likely just continue to blog about my work but if I find an awesome Burmese python or snorkel with some corals I will feel compelled to share.
Hi, this is my new professional blog. Recently I have been reading a lot of environmental (read:ocean) blogs and doing a lot of environmental stuff so I thought it might be nice to combine them. I plan to use this space to hold my resumes, examples of my work, updates on my work, and then my thoughts about other people’s work. We live in too fast of a society for me to wait for an assignment to write about an issue and frankly people are just making rapid unfounded decisions. I want to change that.
The content will roughly follow my interests: futurism, environmental policy, economics, ecology, culture, Asia, history, and so on. I assure you these are all related and hopefully once this WordPress project is complete anyone visiting it should have a clear understanding as well.
I also want to begin with a quote, this is one of my favs from Aldo Leopod the father of environmental guilt. I am sure anyone who works with nature has had a moment like this, this quote shows up so much in the environmental movement its silly.
“[....] We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
- Leopold, Aldo: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 129-132.