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6 bright ideas in 2021 that are helping end plastic waste
February 5, 2021
Overview
From Bali to Uganda, companies and communities are pioneering solutions to the plastic waste problem. Here are six projects to keep an eye on in 2021.
OverviewOverview

‘Reverse vending machines’ gamify recycling

Most people acknowledge that recycling is an important path toward circularity, but who knew it could also be fun? Norwegian company TOMRA aims to make recycling a rewarding habit with reverse vending machines, which gives users credit in exchange for depositing used drinks containers. Over 84,000 of these machines are scattered across the globe, capturing an estimated 40 billion drinks containers every year.

Additionally, this year, TOMRA and its partners are kicking off operations at a new advanced mechanical recycling plant in Lahnstein, Germany. This facility will produce high-purity polymers suitable for demanding applications, such as in automotive manufacturing.

TOMRA shows it takes a multi-pronged approach to help end plastic waste, boosting both the recycling industry’s capabilities while working to shift consumer behaviour toward sustainability. 

Unlocking the value of plastic waste for the community

Women-led ASASE Foundation is helping people in Accra, Ghana reap the untapped value of plastic waste. Its recycling facility buys plastic waste collected by locals, then regrinds the waste to sell to recyclers.

ASASE Foundation’s initiative is rapidly scaling with support from the Alliance. It increased its processing capacity from  35 tons of plastic waste in 2019, up to 500 tons in 2020, and is expected to quadruple to 2,000 tons this year. Further expansion is in the works, with help from European Commission in Ghana and the Alliance.


Transforming plastic waste into affordable housing

Plastic is tough, light, cheap, and mouldable: all desirable properties for building materials. Although recycled plastic is not yet used for construction on an industrial scale, a few initiatives are showing promise. Upcycle Africa, based in Central Uganda, has been working with women and unemployed youths to collect and transform plastic waste into eco-friendly building materials. The social enterprise has recovered over 3 million plastic bottles and built 117 affordable homes.

In summer, Upcycle Africa will pilot trash-to-tank processors to turn plastic waste unsuitable for building materials into plastic-derived fuel oil, helping close the loop.

In pursuit of 100 % recyclable packaging

Around 40 per cent of plastic is used as packaging, so every step towards sustainability in this sector has the potential to make a big difference. At the end of last year, packaging giant Sealed Air revealed what it described as the first food-grade film made from recycled plastic (up to 30 per cent). The glossy film is three times thinner than other thermoformable films, reducing overall plastic consumption and waste.

Look out for what Sealed Air has to offer in the near future as it pursues its target of 100 % recyclable or reusable packaging products by 2025.

Setting robots to work in recycling plants

The inefficiency of sorting mixed waste is a major obstacle to recycling. AMP Robotics is using AI to develop autonomous sorting systems to minimise the materials going to waste due to this shortcoming. Utilising deep learning (a machine learning approach suitable for computer vision), its Neuron system is able to categorise paper, plastics, and metals by a variety of attributes, and continue learning as it works. This automates the selection and decontamination of recyclable materials, ready for processing.

AMP Robotics was a finalist in the End Plastic Waste Innovation Platform, organised by Plug and Play and the Alliance. They recently raised $55m in funding to scale its operations and meet demand for its technology. The company will also develop new AI applications which can be integrated into materials recovery facilities to increase recycling rates.

Catching plastic before it reaches the ocean

Jembrana regency in Bali is admired for its natural beauty, but limited access to waste management services has led to plastic being illegally dumped, buried, or burned in the area. 

Project STOP Jembrana is building a local waste management system for the community, which will involve waste being collected weekly and delivered to a materials recovery facility. This facility will process 2,200 tons of plastic waste every year, preventing it leaking into the environment. The group is carrying out a feasibility study to see if this model could be scaled up to capture plastic waste across Indonesia.