By Ken Cottrill, Co-Founder and Research Principal
Norwegian zoologists recently euthanized a sickly beaked whale that was beached on the southwestern coast of Norway. A post-mortem revealed the probable cause of the creature’s illness: its stomach was full of plastic bags.
The U.N. estimates that 8 million tons of plastic garbage is dumped in the world’s oceans each year. A report published in January 2017 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that given projected growth in the production of plastics, by 2050 the planet’s oceans could contain more plastic than fish by weight. Aside from the ecological damage wrought by this tsunami of discarded containers and other items, it also represents a criminal waste of resources.
The above report maintains that 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only about 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Walking away from this mass of material is an expensive habit; each year $80 billion to $120 billion worth of plastic is lost to the global economy.
But there is hope. The scale of the problem, and growing outrage across the world, have triggered multiple responses.
One of the most promising was launched in May 2016 and was responsible for publishing the WEF/McArthur report. Called the New Plastic Economy initiative, it is now endorsed by more than 40 industry leaders including heavyweights such as Coca-Cola, Du Pont and Unilever.
The initiative’s overarching goal is to help the world transition to environmentally sustainable and economically sound plastics usage, with an action plan that is aligned with the principles of the circular economy.
The participants have endorsed a plan to reuse and recycle 70% of plastic packaging globally. Around 20% of this material could be profitably re-used – by replacing single-use plastic bags with re-usable alternatives, for example – and a further 50% could be profitably recycled with better materials design and improved management methods.
Blockchain technology has a role to play in this Brave New World of plastics stewardship.
Consider, for example, the Plastic Bank.
Conceived in 2013, the Bank’s mission is to incentivize the collection of waste plastic before it becomes ocean trash, and to alleviate poverty at the same time.
Individuals in impoverished parts of the world collect discarded plastic and deliver it to collection sites for recycling. Companies buy this Social Plastic as a feedstock. The ingenious part of the system is a blockchain-based digital currency and exchange platform created by the organization, which enables local entrepreneurs to accept plastic waste as currency. People can use the currency to buy supplies such as cooking oil or pay for education.
The Bank is building supply chains “to collect and recycle social plastic which we then sell to brands to use as ethically sourced plastic in their manufacturing,” says the organization’s cofounder Shaun Frankson.
Operations in Haiti began in 2015, where people can exchange junked plastic for solar powered cell phone recharging services. An operation in the Philippines went live this year, and there are plans to launch in Indonesia and Brazil, and globally thereafter.
The blockchain element of this innovative enterprise is set to grow. The Plastic Bank is working with IBM to refine and expand its blockchain platform.
Expect more inventive ideas like this to emerge as the pressure to clean up the planet’s plastic-clogged oceans increases – and a lot more scope for blockchain applications.
Monitoring flows of waste product through newly created reverse supply chains is one possible application area for blockchains. Another is providing information on the recyclability of recovered plastic objects.
And, of course, such applications are not confined to plastic waste. Trashed packaging materials are everywhere.
For example, the Cainiao Network, the logistics arm of Chinese c-commerce behemoth Alibaba Group, recently set up the Cainiao Green Alliance Foundation to address China’s mountain of packaging waste, which is fed by the country’s e-commerce boom. In 2015, some 10 billion cardboard boxes were used to ship items in China. The country is expected to be shipping 145 million packages a day by 2020. That’s a lot of boxes headed for the dump.
We have the ingenuity to create an efficient reverse supply chain for end-of-life packaging – hopefully, images of ocean creatures gorging on plastic scrap have given us the will.