Plastic, when it first came into the world, was nothing short of revolutionary – a game-changer in terms of both lifestyle and the way we do business. But more than 100 years on, the world has become flooded by it. Experts predict that there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. Now, the innovators are those who can devise ways to stem the flow.
In response to this spiraling crisis, major brands have increased their use of post-consumer recycled plastic and cut back on problematic plastics. Despite this, the amount of plastic they put on the market in fact grew by more than five percent in 2021, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“Recognition of the problem of overconsumption and rising levels of plastic pollution has increased in the past decades, but efforts to reduce on both fronts are only having marginal impact,” says WWF Australia No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager Kate Noble. ”This is partly because these efforts can’t keep pace with rising production, which is linked with economic growth.”
The picture is not entirely hopeless, however. Inspiring advances are being made. But with many multinational companies citing operational complexity and compliance risk across markets as major barriers to meaningful action, Noble explains that much of the progress and innovation in this area is being driven by newcomers.
We met some of the founders committed to tackling the plastic challenge and who are already making their mark.
Lance Ng had always wanted to do something to help tackle human pollution. “I chose plastic because it was one of the biggest environmental problems for humankind – probably second only to greenhouse gases (GHGs),” he says.
“Yet the plastic waste management and recycling industry remains very primitive, opaque and inefficient. There is a big opportunity here to modernize the industry and create transparency.”
When he co-founded Scrapp, now Scrapp Deals, it was an auction-based B2B trading platform for recycled plastics. “We have since expanded our scope to waste management and recycling in general,” he explains.
It now helps businesses to introduce and manage waste reduction and recycling programs for all waste types – organic waste, wood, metal, glass, paper and more.
“Of course, managing plastic waste is still a focus area because of all the waste materials generated by human activity, plastic remains the toughest to recycle and the biggest polluter,” Ng says.
He reports signs of increasing adoption of waste management and recycling programs among multinational corporations. “More and more businesses are beginning to realize that not only can they reduce GHG emissions by managing waste, they can also potentially save on their cost of production and operating expenses,” he explains.
“Although it is still trickling down to smaller companies, the momentum is clearly increasing.”
Scrapp Deals will focus on building success stories in Singapore during 2023, developing its ecosystem of collection partners and recyclers before expanding into the region. “Ultimately, we want to evolve the industry into what we call Waste Management 2.0, where the goal of everyone involved in the value chain is to achieve zero waste,” he says.
“To do that, the incentives – as well as the digital infrastructure required – must be developed and aligned. But that is our vision: a world where more recycled materials are used than natural resources.”
Having spent eight years working on yachts across the South Pacific, Mediterranean and Caribbean, Tom Jackson couldn’t help but notice the rising levels of plastic in the water. “The patterns were the same across the world’s oceans,” he says. “I couldn’t get this out of my head and spent a few years working on startups until I found what I was looking for – a social company that offers brands a solution to help prevent our plastic getting into the deep blue.”
The light bulb moment saw him pack his bags, get on a plane and spend four months speaking to every recycler and coastal town he could visit, while finding customers overseas at the same time – all against the difficult backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it was worth the hard yards, with Honest Ocean’s model already making an impact both on company supply chains and the lives of the local communities that collect the coastal plastics.
“We micromanage waste streams focusing on coastal plastics to prevent them from reaching our oceans and waterways. We recycle these plastics and partner with brands to help them make more sustainable products out of the recycled ocean-stopped plastic,” Jackson explains.
“It’s early in the market movement but it’s great to see brands looking for this. The next 10 years will be very important for our oceans and the harvesting of plastic.”
Honest Ocean plans to scale throughout the regions worst-affected by plastic – namely South–East Asia and Africa – and build its network of coastal waste banks. Big brand collaborations are also an important part of the plan. “With big brands we can really hit the targeted volume number for plastic, removing more and more from the waste streams,” Jackson says.
Known as the ‘Lake City’ or the ‘Venice of the East’, Udaipur’s elaborate palaces and vast pools of water have long drawn visitors from around the world. So when civil engineering students Kunjpreet Arora and Lokesh Puri Goswami realized the impact plastic pollution was having on their beloved hometown, they felt inspired to take action.
“We observed that the beauty of our city was being destroyed by waste material, especially plastic bottles, bags and plastic wrappers. The waste ends up on the periphery of these lakes or in landfill between the hills,” Arora says.
Realizing the global extent of the problem, they pledged to come up with a solution and, in 2020, founded Angirus India. The circular economy startup manufactures lightweight and damp-proof bricks called “Wricks” using 100 percent recycled waste material, which includes single-use plastic waste and inert industrial waste.
Wricks are expected to reduce brickwork costs by up to 20 percent and require 50 percent less labor to produce. “There has been no significant technological upgrade or innovation for hundreds of years,” she continues. “Our objective is to provide a sustainable alternative to the US$25 billion Indian brick industry, while recycling waste and reducing carbon emissions.”
Angirus India is targeting builders and architects who are already aware of the climate impact and are ready to accept or experiment with new building materials for their construction projects. Already, it is getting pre-orders and inquiries from all over the country.
Next on the agenda is establishing Wricks plants in tier-one and tier-two cities. “Through our scale-up plan, we also aim to create micro-entrepreneurs, creating livelihoods and employment while recycling locally generated waste material,” Arora explains.
After founding sustainability technology company Nozama Green in London in early 2019, by the summer of 2021, André Vanyi-Robin had come to the realization that everyone wants to save the world, but no one is willing to pay for it. “So we decided to focus on the waste management industry, which had not changed in 50 years,” he explains. “How could we incentivize transparency and traceability?”
He found the answer to his questions in the NFT business model, and started Plastiks to provide waste management companies with a third source of funding by trading on the proof that they are recovering plastic and selling it to the recycling industry.
“It therefore guarantees that the plastic is being recovered and put back in the recycling industry and not being sent to a landfill or incineration,” Vanyi-Robin says. The idea was to target waste recovery projects in developing nations and create a new source of revenue to encourage them to improve and increase their recovery rates.
Not only did he have to find waste recovery projects to partner with, he also had to find companies willing to buy these plastic recovery guarantees. Through partnerships with companies such as Hôtel Lancaster in Paris, Siminetti in the United Kingdom and Rosita Beers in Spain, Plastiks was able to secure a core source of revenue.
Now Vanyi-Robin is confident Plastiks’ mission to encourage reuse of plastics is the correct approach. “There is not enough room or space on planet Earth to accommodate indefinite growth, thus the solution is recovery, which the Plastiks model incentivizes,” he says.