The role of plastics in the larger sustainability movement has been the focus of plenty of industry conversations over the past decade. And it’s out of that environment that the Plasticity series of events has formed.
The Plasticity Forum, which has been held eight times since 2012 in different locations around the globe, brings together a range of leaders from brand owners, materials recovery entities, nonprofit groups, government agencies and more for “a big conversation on the future of plastic.”
The ninth Plasticity is taking place in Sydney on Oct. 31. We talked with Doug Woodring, who founded the event series, to learn more about how the dialogue has evolved and where exactly recycling fits into the strategies being articulated by major plastics stakeholders.
How has the perception of plastics sustainability changed?
I believe it has changed a lot in the past five years, and each year a broader population of stakeholders in industry, government and the general public are becoming aware of the challenges and scale that plastic pollution represents. The next stage is for good case studies and examples of plastic sustainability and circularity to be shown to the world, so that others can see how to replicate or modify those projects in their own companies or communities.
Along with that, how has Plasticity changed?
Plasticity continues to be one of the only conferences focused only on plastic sustainability, and it has continued to create collaborations among companies big and small, while being a showcase of examples of working solutions and expertise for others to learn from. Its discussion is all the more important as a broader sector of the business community and set of stakeholders becomes more aware of the need to be engaged on plastic circularity where it touches their products and operations.
What do you see as the great unmet challenges in plastic packaging design with regard to recycling?
I think there are a few, but this is also where opportunities come out of the woodwork. One is with the standardization of materials. This might not be so exciting for brands and designers, but it would certainly help the recycling and recovery industry to reach economies of scale.
The other challenge is … to create value from lightweight material…. Some of the new solutions will allow for the aggregation of these waste streams to make mixed-product outputs which can be used for different rigid/durable building materials or other products usable in supply chains, such as shipping pallets. I also believe the reverse supply chain for products/materials is a large, untapped category to focus on in regards to resource recovery.
How will your Plasticity Sprint design competition work to address those?
The Plasticity Sprint design competition will help to bring together new, innovative ideas on certain packaging challenges, which might have already been efficiently designed in the current state, but not for the new way of circular economy thinking. Plasticity Sprint will bring together great minds from different countries to collaborate on an exciting new ideation platform which all can share and improve ideas on. The more that new, fresh ideas are introduced, the more that brand owners, designers and packagers can adopt best practices with something new that might be revolutionary in its space.
What’s your understanding of how China’s actions are affecting plastics recycling right now?
China’s actions are commendable and, in many ways, are helping other countries who for too long have under-invested in processing and value-added technology, and who have simply “traded” the waste resources away to China for processing. If other developing countries follow suit in their controls of the quality of imported waste resources, it will be harder for the waste exporters to move that material off of their front door, at home. This will be good for domestic innovation, job creation and a myriad of new opportunities for existing and entrepreneurial business solutions to recover plastic resources in their “afterlife.”
Are you seeing examples of how recycling is chipping away at the ocean plastics problem?
We do not see this yet, as the problem is so big, and it often is bigger from developing countries or island states who simply do not have the resources for recycling or proper waste management. This is why case studies of new examples and best practices are now needed in these communities. Remember, they are usually the ones who receive recycling infrastructure “last” in terms of other municipality and community needs, which means they are the ones who need the focused help now, in both knowledge transfer and fairly simple equipment that can bring them up the value curve with material recovery.
Doug Woodring is the co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance and the founder of the Plasticity Forum.