Nicholas Kolesch

Innovation in adversity. Re-thinking ways to tackle plastic waste

Nicholas Kolesch
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May 5, 2020
3 min
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In the first of a four-part blog series, Vice President of Projects, Nicholas Kolesch, who joined us on 1 of May 2020 writes about how the Alliance is looking to foster innovative solutions in its journey to help end plastic waste.

If you asked me three months ago what the weeks leading up to my new role at the Alliance would be like, I would never have imagined that it would be isolated with my family at home, doing my part to social distance in a world shaken by COVID-19. However, it presented me with a unique opportunity to learn more about the work and mission of the Alliance and to connect virtually with my new colleagues and partners who are building out plans and projects to help end plastic waste in the environment. 

This is a crisis of global proportions and companies have stepped up to combat COVID-19 in a way not seen before. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention and we have seen it on display with factories retooled and supply chains adapted to manufacture and deliver much needed supplies to the front line of the battle. Real innovation in action!

Championing Innovation

We are inspired by innovators adapting existing technologies to fight COVID-19. Recently, the Smithsonian described a smart mirror that detects a person as soon as one waves at it, and then it walks them through a multi-step hand-washing animated video. 

Everyone’s playing their part, including Alliance members. This is why I firmly believe human ingenuity will be a key factor in the fight against 8 million tons of plastic waste entering our oceans annually. And in this post, I will share a little on the importance of why the Alliance to End Plastic Waste champions innovation.

Innovation in a New Normal

In a post-COVID-19 world, behaviours and attitudes will change. From the basic like hand hygiene, to the digital like distance learning and virtual meetings, we have seen that it is possible to change behaviour by leveraging innovation. A new normal will settle and these things could stay well beyond the current crisis. 

Similarly, with fighting the plastic waste challenge, there is a real opportunity to effect lasting change. While it starts with awareness and behaviour shifts from each of us, we also have innovators with the tools and technology to bear on our challenge. Things like artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data, these are resources and capabilities that can be directed to where they are most needed so that we can enable circularity in the plastics value chain.

That is why, apart from the research and development efforts by our Alliance members, we are encouraging innovation wherever it may take place. To this end, we have partnered with Plug and Play (Venture Capital Accelerator) to launch the End Plastic Waste Innovation Platform worldwide. 

Running from Silicon Valley, Paris, and Singapore, this accelerator program identifies and supports start-ups developing solutions that will help us achieve our mission to end plastic waste in the environment. 

Sorting Out Plastic Waste’s Biggest Challenges

So far, we have seen very promising innovations from the first batch of start-ups in the United States and in Europe. Their ideas span the plastic value chain—from beginning to end.

Upstream, many companies are looking at developing technologies that will better collect, manage, and sort plastic waste. This is especially useful because one of the biggest challenges with

developing a circular economy is sorting plastic from organics, metal and paper to create clean and uniform material streams for recycling.

Start-ups such as AMP RoboticsClean RoboticsRecycleye, and Greyparrot are combining advanced robotic technology with Artificial Intelligence to sort recyclable materials from waste. 

Impact Recycling has come up with an efficient system that easily separates different types of plastic waste. Together, these solutions will better streamline and boost the efficiency of the sorting processes improving uniformity of plastic from waste management facilities.

Bring Value Back to Plastic Waste

Other start-ups are tackling the US$120 billion-a-year question: how do we extract value from plastic waste for a circular economy? 

Kiverdi, and Obbago  are exploring ways to reuse plastic waste to create materials for everyday use such as reusable plastic bags. Upp! UpCycling Plastic are supporting companies, communities and local authorities to become plastic waste-free by using plastic waste to make 100% recyclable re-plastic products. While ByFusion are recycling the unrecyclable, with technology to turn all types of plastics into building and construction materials.

Resynergi and Plastic-Back are re-engineering plastic waste into clean fuel. If their efforts are successful, they could be looking at extracting significant value from plastic waste.

Education and Better Clean-Up

While the Alliance is targeting effective waste management to ensure plastic waste does not enter the environment in the first place, the focus must also be on innovative approaches to clean-up and education, with several promising start-ups in action.

The Great Bubble Barrier has come up with an innovative solution that prevents plastic from flowing into oceans by simply using a bubble screen. While Litterati has developed a novel app that educates through collaboration and mapping of waste in communities. 

Plastic Odyssey have embarked on a three year round-the-world expedition to raise awareness, educate and develop waste reduction initiatives. 

Then there are start-ups thinking about how to link both the consumers and suppliers of recycled plastic waste. For instance, Oceanworks and Circularise are tapping on technologies such as blockchain and peer-to-peer technology to bring more transparency and data to the recycling process.

Big Problems Require Bold Thinkers

These are just a few of the exciting ideas from our first run of the Plug and Play End Plastic Waste Innovation Platform program. Many of these will require further testing and tweaks before they become commercial solutions. 

While we can all contribute individually to ending plastic waste, we believe in collaboration to solve this serious and complex challenge. As the Alliance, identifying and connecting the biggest and boldest thinkers will accelerate our journey.