Planet 5 min
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions
Quentin and Mathieu went on a cycling trip around the world a little more than a year ago in order meet people who collect, recycle and re-use plastic waste. They recently completed their journey. After a promising start (see Article from January 2018, the second part of their journey was just as rich and full of surprises.
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions

Plastic waste management: the lesson from the so-called developing countries


Plastic waste management in Ethiopia: extreme selective sorting for PET bottles in Ethiopia.

During our last interview, you were about to leave the African continent. Since then, you have travelled through Asia and South America. Were your meetings as successful as in Africa?

To say the least! Particularly in India, where we discovered many initiatives that were interesting in what they achieved from a human perspective and in relation to plastic recycling. However, before discovering the many resources in Asia, we took a last-minute decision to travel to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

We had heard about a huge open-air dump in which the poorest populations worked and lived. Imagine a space several square kilometres wide which alternates between a dump and shantytowns. There, people collect anything that they believe might have some value. It is like an anthill organised according to each person’s specialty: there are those who collect metal, cardboard, plastics, and some of the latter only collect packaging, or bottles that are sorted according to colour. Once the waste has been sorted, each person attempts to sell what they have collected to recyclers for a few cents. It is a world dictated by resourcefulness! It is in that context that we met a group of artists that challenged us to create an artwork with only the materials that we could find on-site. Although the challenge was met, it was not entirely successful. We wanted to create a huge chandelier representing our planet made from a metal structure and green and blue PET bottles. We did not have enough time to complete our project, unfortunately.

It is therefore with a little regret that you said goodbye to Africa and started off for Asia. Where did you enter?

We came in through India, specifically through Mumbai, one of the world’s most populous cities. We will talk about India later on, as it is certainly one of the countries that most “affected” us both because of the people we met and the ingenuity of the initiatives aimed at better recycling plastics.

Alright. Which country would you like to talk about?

After India, we travelled to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, and also one of the most polluted by all types of waste. Developing countries do not produce more waste than other countries, only it is more visible because it is dumped in open-air dumps. A gust of wind can easily dislodge the lighter waste, such as plastics, and send it into nature or the oceans. It is easy to understand why some, including the plastics industry, advocate for a policy aimed at ensuring that there is no plastic waste in dumps, particularly, and we noted this, given the fact that used plastics can be converted into a resource. Coming back to Indonesia, we met with organisations looking to develop new forms of plastics. One of those is Enviplast, a subsidiary of PT Intera Lestari Polimer, a major local petrochemical group that manufactures polymers. Their story is an interesting one. In the early 2010s, they decided that oil was not a sustainable resource and that it was becoming necessary to seek out an alternative. They developed a cassava starch-based biopolymer which was therefore bio-sourced and biodegradable.

That is nothing new. Similar experiments have already been carried out with potential consequences on deforestation and food crops.

That is very true and we told them the same thing, and their answers were very convincing. Cassava is mainly used to make flour to feed populations. However, part of the cassava is not fit to be consumed and is therefore considered waste. It is that part which Enviplast uses to create its biopolymer. Therefore, there are no adverse effects for food crops.

Cultivating plants intended for use in biofuels and bioplastics to the detriment of food crops is not a sustainable solution.

And what use is that biopolymer intended for?

It is sold to processors in the form of pellets. Most of the time, it is used in biodegradable disposable bags. However, a paradox remains. Enviplast does not sell much of its polymer to Indonesian companies as the country has not yet banned non-biodegradable plastic bags. Most of their sales are to countries that have banned those bags. It goes to show that the old saying “No one is a prophet in their own land” still holds true.

Inedible cassava waste makes an excellent bioplastic for biodegradable plastic bags.

A seaweed-based polymer. The perfect food packaging.

In Indonesia, we also met with Evoware, a recently-formed company that manufactures films from edible seaweed and which received an award given by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It is ideal for packaging food such as hamburgers, for instance. However, they went one step further and found an unique outlet for their packaging.

They hope to sell it to manufacturers of freeze-dried coffee with the aim of producing individual pods that could be dropped into hot water; the film and the coffee would then both simply dissolve. The same type of packaging could be used for all sorts of foods, including spices, to make aromatic stock.

After long months spent in developing countries, you travelled to New Zealand. Did you experience a culture shock?

Yes, but not as strongly as we might have thought. We travelled to the country’s capital, Auckland. It is a highly-developed city but also one rich with creativity fostered by its incredible blend of ethnicities. We had been told about Critical Design, a recently-formed design company that recovers used plastics and converts them into everyday objects.

A successful line of design objects made from recycled plastics.

They are well-known for their table in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Their production sells pretty well. Their adventure began almost on the day when China decided to stop importing plastic waste to reprocess it. The collective then wondered whether there was a way to turn those plastics into a resource. For the record, they designed their own machine for grinding, melting and pressing used plastics.

You must also have come across activists advocating for “a different world”. What do they have in common?

Simply put, they do not want to see our planet suffer so much damage because of our lifestyles. And they are all very aware that they are making a small contribution, but they believe that if everyone did the same, the Earth would be less polluted and less at risk. Some believe that not everyone has understood this, often due to a lack of information, particularly in the least developed countries. Some of our meetings were unexpected, as was the case in Chile, which we visited after New Zealand. We met up with the Triciclos Company, an institution in the country! Triciclos designed a dozen recycling bins for all types of recyclable waste: paper, cardboard, plastics, metal, and more. Their starting point was the fact that sorting was a bottleneck for the recycling of used materials. And that is true, as creating sorting centres is not something that all countries can afford, and that was the case for Chile. The company designed a dozen different bins that they set up near supermarkets. There are several different bins just for plastics: bottles, food packaging, bags, and more. In the end, the consumers do the sorting. They are assisted by a Triciclos employee who is on-site during the supermarket’s opening hours. The idea is a great one, because it cuts down on collection and sorting costs. Then, and this is how Triciclos pays for its continued operation, the waste is sold by weight to recyclers and therefore becomes a resource. Their system has become so successful that Triciclos has exported it to neighbouring countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. The company’s founders have become experts in the circular economy and many institutions call upon them due to the quality and relevance of their advice.

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