President's Blog

22 Oct 2019 09:00 Age: 289 days

From Waste to Resource: Solving the Plastic Pollution Challenge Requires a Shift in Perspective

Category: ISWA BLOG, ISWA News


Guest post by Erik Solheim, CEO of Plastic REVolution Foundation

The menace of plastic pollution is one of the pressing challenges of our time. It kills wildlife, it chokes sewages, and not least it leaks into the ocean and threatens marine life. While plastic has revolutionized production and consumption, making what we see as modern life possible, its mismanagement has proven detrimental. Plastic is not the problem, plastic waste is. This is the view of the Plastic REVolution Foundation, and the background for our first project of building a Plastic-to-Liquid plant in Accra.



As opposed to many other materials, plastics do not easily biodegrade – duration estimates range from 450 years to never1. Rather, due to their slow rate of decomposition, plastics accumulate in the ocean and on beaches. Here it breaks down into smaller pieces, and the very small pieces we call microplastics (<5mm in length) are likely to enter our food chain with consequences that are yet unknown.


We produce around 350 million tons of plastics every year, of which 250 end up in a landfill or the environment, and 10 in the ocean2. While changes to legislation as well as consumer and producer behavior is happening, poor waste management is at the core of this issue. Lack of adequate infrastructure is one reason that extremely poor regions are the most likely to suffer from extreme plastic pollution – which, ironically, is also likely to further curb their economic development. In 2017 Bali declared a “garbage emergency” as its idyllic beaches had become increasingly covered in litter, jeopardizing one of the main pillars of its economy – tourism3.



The need for improved practices around plastic waste can be better understood according the waste hierarchy, which stipulates a priority order4: prevention > preparing for re-use > recycling > (energy recovery) > disposal (Figure 3, on the left).



Ideally, production/consumption of plastics that are not correctly handled should be prevented and reduced. Steps are being taken worldwide to limit the use of single-use plastics. For instance, the European Parliament recently voted to ban a number of single-use plastics and many African countries were first-movers in banning the use of polythene bags. Simultaneously, producers are working to change packaging procedures. Reuse is the second-best option.



The third-best option is recycling, which involves the material recovery from separately collected waste streams. When it comes to plastics, one can separate between different forms of recycling. Mechanical recycling involves the recycling into secondary raw materials without changing its basic structure. This method is widespread, and there is a push to improve recyclability of the plastics that are produced (e.g. reduction of blended materials, and prioritizing easily recyclable materials). Nonetheless, it involves certain challenges. Numerous types of plastics cannot be mechanically recycled without severe degradation, and there are limits to acceptable contamination levels. The best prospect for mechanical recycling is when waste is separated at source, which requires an advanced waste management system – the absence of which caused the problem to begin with.


A possible way to handle waste that cannot be mechanically recycled is through chemical recycling, or plastics regeneration. This involves the decomposition of plastic waste through a chemical or heat-induced reaction, to its monomer (or for solvent-based purification, polymer) stage. It can subsequently be recombined to create the same grade as the original plastic – or be transformed into other products, such as diesel. This is generally referred to as transformation into petrochemical feedstock or fuel through a plastic-to-liquid process (e.g. pyrolysis).


The second last option is energy recovery which generally involves producing energy through incineration. The final viable option for handling plastic waste is through disposal at landfills, where it is not treated as a resource but is kept from entering nature.



One reason that plastics are allowed to accumulate on land is because, most places, they do not have any value. Developing a system where plastic is considered valuable has great potential for incentivizing its treatment as a resource, thus encouraging collection, sorting and recycling. This solution should act as complimentary to that of reducing the use of plastics altogether through changes to producer and consumption behavior, and represents exactly what the we are trying to achieve in Accra.


We are currently working to build a system for collecting plastic, by working with local private and public actors. Shortly, we will embark on two pilot studies. One involves working with a major waste management company to improve waste sorting procedures. We will simultaneously be working with local authorities to mobilize the existing networks of waste pickers as a way of collecting plastics from the beaches, streets and less well-off neighborhoods – in the process creating livelihoods. These studies will give us a picture of the volume, types and quality of the plastics we can collect, and the costs of doing so. Through chemical recycling, our objective is to get an end-product that can generate enough income to cover the costs of collection and plant operations. If successful, this project will be the first of its kind in a developing country, and represent an opportunity for replication many other places. Our hope is that by creating a market for also the plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled, there will be an increased effort to get – and keep – plastics out of the environment. In the longer run, this perception of used plastics as a resource will hopefully encourage further sorting at source, thus contributing to building the basis for a constantly improving plastic waste management.


There is no single solution, but much is happening. What is certain is that in order to address the root cause of the problem, there needs to be a change in mentality. Plastic is a resource – it should be used with care and has value also after being used. With this view, there is little doubt that there will be a greater motivation to stop plastic leakage into our rivers, forests and oceans.



Finally, I would like to invite those reading this to collaborate and join our journey as partners or investors – together, we can overcome this challenge. Please reach out if you would like to learn more about our project.






About Erik Solheim


Erik Solheim is the CEO of Plastic REVolution Foundation, a newly founded initiative that aims to eliminate plastic waste and pollution, beginning in Accra, Ghana. He is currently also senior adviser at World Resource Institute and Convener of the Global Coalition for Green Belt and Road. Previously, he has served as Norwegian minister of Environment and International Development, been the Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and Executive Director of UN Environment. He is also an experienced peace negotiator – he led the peace efforts in Sri Lanka as the main negotiator of the peace process and has played a vital role in peace efforts in Nepal, Myanmar and Sudan.