How One Company Is Working To Address The Global Plastic Waste Crisis
In the epic 1967 film The Graduate, the young lead character Ben played by Dustin Hoffman is given advice about his future by Mr. McGuire – “One word. Plastics.” Indeed, plastics have fulfilled a vast number of functions in modern society. But particularly when it comes to containers, wrappers, bags and other “single use items,” plastic is also a huge source of environmental impact through litter, microplastic contaminants, incineration, and even the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The visibility of the ocean pollution problems has served to increase public awareness of this issue and inspired things like a UN Global Plastics Treaty and the “Plastic Reality Project” involving 25 corporate leaders in India. Still, it is estimated that it would require an investment of around $30 Billion per year until 2040 to build the infrastructure needed to fully address this issue in all parts of the world.
The ideal solution would be a system that goes beyond a “circular economy” to one that is “planet positive and restorative.” But the reality is that while recycling certainly does occur in the countries that can afford to invest in waste handling infrastructure, the sorting process is complicated and there is not a secondary market for many plastics. Actual recycling is in the range of 6-10% of the total. There is an excellent summary of this situation on the Dirt-To-Dinner website.
The US is estimated to export 1 million tons of plastic waste each year to the Global South. Similarly, other developed nations like the UK and the Netherlands export substantial waste tonnage. In the Global South services like curbside trash collection are unavailable, and even drop off sites are rare. Thus, plastic waste all too often ends up being dumped at unregulated sites, incinerated, or simply discarded into the environment.
There are many legitimate needs for plastic packaging. It can maintain product quality and safety and is a relatively light material for transport. Companies that use plastic in their supply chains or products may have good intentions about mitigating environmental impact, but their options have been limited – until now. Repurpose Global is a company started in 2019 that seeks to address this issue for the companies that depend on plastics.
The company’s co-founders, Peter Wang Hjemdahl, Svanika Balasubramanian and Aditya Siroya have diverse backgrounds. Peter grew up between Norway and China. Svanika and Aditya both have roots in India, and all three were educated in the US which is where they met. Their experience has given them a unique perspective on the global plastics pollution issue. One observation that motivated them was the “informal” plastics recovery in India where marginalized individuals sift through waste to scavenge any plastics of value. One of their goals was to formalize these efforts with supporting infrastructure.
In the four years since its founding, rePurpose Global has focused on giving CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies a tangible and verifiable way to take action on their global plastic footprint and fight global plastic pollution. What they offer is analogous to the carbon credits that companies can acquire to meet their greenhouse gas emissions targets. In this case a company can take steps to link each pound of their plastic use to a pound worth of plastic waste remediation. rePurpose pursues four “pillars” to accomplish this:
- Measurement – a standard mantra of sustainability efforts is that “you can only manage what you can measure.” Plastics users can certainly measure their use and rePurpose Global can help companies assess the quantity of plastic that exists in their supply chains.
- Reduction and Re-design – the company works with clients to find ways to reduce the amount of plastic required throughout their supply chain and identify opportunities to use less plastic-intense materials
- Plastic Credits – rePurpose offers a plastic credit which is a transferable certificate representing the collection of a specified weight (e.g., 1 kg or metric ton) of plastic waste recovered or recycled that would otherwise have ended up in the natural environment. They must be measurable, traceable, and verifiable. The funding that is generated is used to finance solutions to the global plastic pollution problem by building recovery and recycling infrastructure and to incentivize nature-bound plastics collection. Brands can use these credits as a means of taking responsibility for the plastic they create while also supporting waste workers and their communities
- Certifications – brands can apply for “plastic neutral” or even “plastic negative” certifications if they fund the removal of their equivalent plastic footprint –or double in the case of “plastic negative” — from nature
One of the main ways that rePurpose is fighting the plastic waste crisis is by building the infrastructure to sort, process and recycle plastics in areas where it doesn’t currently exist. The company funds the development of impact projects on the ground where trained employees a properly sorted collected waste into specific plastic categories (recycled, compostable, low value) – making sure that all plastic that can be recycled is. What is unique about rePurpose Global, and where they add in terms of additionality, is that they incentivize the collection of low-value plastics that are otherwise not worth collecting, sorting, and transporting for processing.
Even when low value plastics are unrecyclable, rePurpose Global does not permit landfilling or incineration and they are funding innovations to make these plastics useful. One example is the transformation of Multi Layered Packaging (MLP) into ‘eco wood’ at their Sueño Azul project in Bogota, Colombia, creating a flexible, resilient building material that is then used for public utilities, such as park benches and housing for waste workers.
The funding from plastic credits positively impacts the lives of 10,000+ marginalized waste workers and community members worldwide by creating a crucial income stream and supporting social enterprises across the world enabling them to sustainably scale. rePurpose currently recovers over fourteen million pounds of plastic a year. 250 brands are now taking action on plastic through their system. This is at least a good start towards the circularization of plastics and the environmental benefits that entails.