Collective action CAN turn the tide of plastic waste!

Triggered by the sight of tides of plastic waste being thrown up by the ocean, thousands of people around the world have been taking part in incredible efforts to clean up beaches. Many of them inspired by organizations such as Ocean Conservancy and #pullingourweight(a campaign to collect 4 or more pounds of trash and litter per day– the average amount of waste each individual produces every day around the world.)

Our own Project Butterfly is an initiative created by Dow to raise awareness of the devastating impact of poor waste management in Africa, and to show not just how vital it is to keep local environments litter-free, but demonstrate the value of recycling.

Recently we teamed up with the #pullingourweight campaign for more beach clean-ups. We ran one in Lagos, Nigeria in September; and in October, along with my colleagues, I grabbed a pair of protective gloves, some bags and got stuck in with the mammoth clean up in Durban, South Africa.

It was inspiring to see so many people from different walks of life getting involved, with everyone from school children to local dignitaries pulling together to make a difference – and when a pristine shoreline is unearthed from a tide of plastic in a matter of hours, it shows what can be done with the energy of collective force.

But what happens when we go back to our homes, offices, schools, factories? We might have gone away horrified by the sight of all that waste, but have we really been able to stem the tide, however many hundreds of kilos of material we gathered? And has our own throw-away culture led us to devalue plastic – do we now only link this versatile material with waste and forget that it underpins modern life and that waste plastic can have value too?

Where collective force can really make a long-term difference, is turning that shock into permanent action, and knowledge into power. That’s why it’s vital to underpin beach cleanups with educational campaigns: with programs that recognize the incredible value plastic can bring when designed, used and managed responsibly and to further back those campaigns with palpable projects that demonstrate the value of plastic ‘waste’.

In short, we need to turn the concept of the circular economy into reality.

It can be done, and here are two examples of how collective action drives results:

1. Last year Dow began collaborating with the NGO Plastics SA through Project Butterfly to support the recycling start-up Destination Green in Tembisa, South Africa. The township has no waste management infrastructure and litter had become a major problem. Destination Green is now a burgeoning recycling business, processing over 35MT of plastic every week.

2. Dow is working with the Wildlands Conservation Trust in Durban to expand their Recycling Village model. A big part of the success is empowering local ‘wastepreneurs’ to collect and sort litter and then receive a regular income, improving their environment and their lives. This has given them a chance to collect 1.2 million kilograms recyclable waste from over 10,000 homes, generating value in waste plastic, providing employment, and improving living standards. The project includes an experimental extrusion line designed to turn previously unrecyclable plastic into recyclable material which can be used to create school desks much needed in parts of Africa, building materials or even diesel. 

Let’s not forget the power of plastic to enable modern living but at the same time remember that we have a responsibility to the planet and each other. 

There is huge potential for collective action to transform end-of-life plastic into something valuable – giving it a chance to re-serve its fundamental social function while reducing the environmental effect!

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