Modern life seems unimaginable without plastic, but there is a catch. Some of the properties that make it so useful, like its low cost, light weight and durability, also make it hard to dispose of, and, being designed to last, plastic can take thousands of years to decompose. It’s no secret that plastic waste poses a huge threat to our environment. Plastic disposal is changing the environment we live and interact with and social innovation for plastic is in an immediate need.
In the EU, instead of recycling all our plastic waste, we send a third of it straight to landfill. To make matters worse, millions of tonnes of this waste end up in the oceans. Birds, turtles and other sea life get tangled in plastic bags and abandoned fishing equipment, or they die from eating plastic debris. Over time, larger pieces of plastic break down into tiny particles (microplastics), which form a so-called plastic soup.
- Only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled/reused globally;
- 1/3 of plastic waste in Europe ends up in landfill;
- The world’s oceans are infested with over 5 trillion pieces of plastic.
We need a change. Of course, we need to reduce the use of plastic to zero, but being realistic this will not happen anytime soon (or ever). So, instead of considering plastic to be a waste, we can consider it an asset which can be recycled, reused and revalued.
Plastic waste is an EU priority
Plastic is a priority for Europe’s innovative circular economy [i] and steps have already been taken towards the creation of a zero-waste Europe. But it’s not only on a policy level that things are moving. Indeed, many local and global social innovation initiatives had already been launched prior to the issue of plastic waste becoming a hot topic on the political agenda.
In fact, there are many EU-funded projects which focus on the topic, with some working purely on research activities while others feature aspects of social innovation, such as:
Cities Cooperating for Circular Economy aims to engage cities, enterprises, citizens and academia in 16 participatory value chain-based partnerships to create and develop eco-innovative solutions together, demonstrating new applications for plastic waste (amongst others).
The Circular Ocean project seeks to inspire enterprises and entrepreneurs to realise the hidden opportunities of discarded fishing nets and ropes in the Northern Periphery & Arctic region.
PTWIST designs, deploys and validates an open platform aiming to transform plastic reuse practices, by boosting citizens’ awareness, circular economy practices and sustainable innovation in line with the new plastics economy vision. The three locally based practices involve and engage all stakeholders with an emphasis on the social gains and sustainability potential.
With regards to more global initiatives, we are all familiar with the big campaigns and activities of Greenpeace and WWF that highlight the ways in which plastic impacts the environment, our oceans and our animals, but in this blog I want to highlight other less global and more local initiatives which could inspire you to take action and follow their example.
This blog will drill into some of these, focusing on initiatives that may be less known but which are no less important.
Reducing the use of plastic
Algramo, a Chilean social enterprise, offers products in small quantities in reusable containers across a network of 1,200 local convenience stores in Chile. The containers are available in low-income neighbourhoods, thus allowing people to purchase just the amounts they need, without having to acquire the standard packaging formats of the brands. The format uses 100% returnable packaging, thus avoiding the accumulation of up to 2 kg of waste per family per month.
All over Europe, small shops which offer products in bulk are using either paper bags or returnable packaging to deliver the products to their clients. And although many are not social enterprises, they do have some level of social innovation due to their social impact.
Although the abolition of plastic bags is now underway in Europe, with an obligation to pay for all, it’s not such an obvious issue in other countries. An initiative set up by a young volunteer in Uzbekistan, supported by the UN, is raising awareness of the environmental costs of using plastic shopping bags and promoting the use of ‘eco-friendly’ cloth bags instead. The initiative, in partnership with a large Uzbek supermarket chain, has been so successful that other chains have also expressed an interest.
Reducing plastic waste
Plastic Bank offers the residents of Haiti cash or vouchers in exchange for the waste they collect, which then goes on to be recycled into products. The decision to launch the initiative in Haiti was twofold. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and, due to ocean currents, much of the plastic ending up on Europe’s beaches comes from this area (as the country has no recycling infrastructure). The collected plastic is ground into flakes and transported by cargo ships that would otherwise have returned empty to their bases. The recycled plastic is then sold to companies such as Henkel, whose researchers are looking into ways of integrating it into their product packaging.
Belu Water is an eco-friendly bottled water which was the first to use ‘bio-bottles’ made of corn. With the appearance of plastic bottles, they can be disposed of either by recycling with other plastic or through commercial composting.
The RE-BUTTON initiative is the first mini-lab-fabrication that allows anyone aged from 7–107 to engage with the wonders and transformation of plastic. Using just some hot air, a mould and a bottle cap you can make a colourful and useful button called a RE-BUTTON! The project was established by FabLab in Lucerne, Switzerland and has worked with school children to produce over 400 RE-BUTTONs. The aim is to show that paying attention to the plastics around you can easily turn a piece of waste into a useful object. The project will be expanded to schools around the country by training teachers so that they can work with students to produce RE-BUTTONs in class.
The social enterprise Sengonzi Terrazzo Ltd from Uganda produces terrazzo and epoxy floorings out of plastic bags and egg shells. Its aim is to reduce plastic waste at the same time as creating employment opportunities for marginalised youth. The company was created in 2014 to upcycle waste in general but plastics and polyethylene in particular.
Following a similar line of thinking is the social enterprise Conceptos Plasticos, which has developed a way of creating stackable bricks from waste plastic and rubber suitable for building durable and extremely affordable houses for those in need.
Planet Love Life is dedicated to developing innovative ways of recycling salvaged marine debris and generating awareness of the damage it inflicts on the oceans. They create and sell products from marine debris that is collected and salvaged during beach clean-up projects. Each bracelet, necklace and keychain represent the life of a marine animal saved from wildlife entanglement.
And a special mention
Last but not least, definitely worth mentioning is the inspiring Precious Plastic initiative, a global community of people working towards an answer to plastic pollution. It started in 2013 in the Netherlands and provides tools and knowledge to people around the world for free. It relies on hundreds of people across the world contributing their skills and knowledge and on donations from organisations and individuals.
The bottom line
It is clear that in the circular economy the line between social enterprise/innovation and more traditional business initiatives is blurred, as the social impact of all initiatives to reduce plastic waste, or reuse it, is evident.
Social innovation is playing a major role in tackling the plastic waste challenge in Europe and globally, and many social enterprises have sprung up looking to provide solutions. The coming years will show if we are able to reduce plastic waste and reuse the waste already generated and make the planet more sustainable while also providing solutions and opportunities for those most in need.
If you want to make a change and contribute to reducing plastic waste and revaluing it by starting your own social innovation project, the Social Innovation Academy and its partners can help you.
Learn more at Social Innovation Academy
EOLAS in Spain and 4 other partners from across Europe are working together to develop the Social Innovation Academy. The Social Innovation Academy will be the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.
Why Social Innovation Academy? Social Innovation is increasingly being seen as the answer to the rising number of European societal challenges. While the European authorities, leading academics, policy experts, business people and activists agree that social innovation is the key to a better future for Europe and the world, it is extremely difficult for professionals to obtain high-quality training on what social innovation actually offers and, more importantly, how it can be done in practice.
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