Cleaning Up 80 Years of Plastic Waste

The Plastic Credit Exchange is on a mission to “clean up 80 years of plastic waste.” It serves a global ecosystem of partners that recover, process, and recycle plastic waste with programs that improve livelihood and scale social impact.

“There’s a reason why you don’t see paper and glass or metal polluting our streets, it’s because the market has assigned a value to that material. So certain sectors within a community will collect it and divert it away from nature and into the circular economy. We need to do that for plastic,” said Plastic Credit Exchange founder Nanette Medved-Po in a clip teeing up a talk on the plastics crisis. “The Plastic Credit Exchange model benefits the communities because it financially incentivizes them to clean up. It benefits businesses, because we give them a responsible way to offset their plastic footprints. And it benefits government that get some relief on heavily taxed waste system. And the cleanup benefits our planet, allowing nature a chance to heal.”

Sebastian DeGrande is the CEO of the Plastic Credit Exchange (PCX), a nonprofit with a mission to “clean up 80 years of plastic waste.” Its commercial market subsidiary serves a global ecosystem of partners that recover, process, and recycle plastic waste with programs that improve livelihood, scale up social impact, and reduce the flow of plastic pollution into nature. DeGrande spoke at Techonomy 22 in Sonoma, CA, explaining the magnitude of the plastic crisis and PCX’s novel solution. The transcript below has been edited for clarity, watch the full video here. DeGrande opened his talk with a pop quiz of the Techonomy audience:

I’m going to give you a quiz on a few points just to dimensionalize the crisis, the challenge and the opportunity. So how much plastic has ever been produced in the world? 8.7 billion tons of plastic produced over time. You can’t even conceptualize it. And just to be clear, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Plastic is an amazing invention. It’s brought food security to poor communities all over the world, medical devices that save lives every day, right?

How much plastic has been produced just this year? 465 million tons – the important thing there is that’s about 5% of the total. So just think about that as a trajectory of growth relative to 8.7 billion over basically 100 years. How much ends up in nature each year? It’s only, and I will say only, 10 million tons. And the reason is much of it goes into landfill, or it gets incinerated. And that doesn’t count as going into nature. Even though it’s a petroleum product, burning it isn’t necessarily a good thing either.

In the U.S. our recycling rate has gone down from 8-9% in past years to more recently below 5%. But most importantly, most of this 10 million tons of plastics ends up in open pits that then degrades or it goes straight into rivers and oceans.

One of the scariest statistics that you will hear is that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. And if you’re a scuba diver like me, and you go scuba diving in some of the remote, beautiful places in the world, and the sun is shining, you see this amazing kaleidoscope of color while you’re diving and you say wow, that’s beautiful. And then you look closely, and you realize it’s the light from the sun refracting through microplastics in the ocean.

We’re finding microplastics in the Antarctic ice shelf, we’re finding it in all our fish. We’re even finding it in human fetuses at this point. And we don’t actually fully understand the implications of all of this.

Plastic is a petroleum product, so how much does it contribute to carbon emissions? At least 5%. It’s really hard to tell for sure, because there are many various types of plastics produced in various ways. Some are recycled, but even the recycling has a carbon footprint. But it is a significant contributor to the warming of the planet as well as being a crisis in its own right.

What you will hear out there around this topic is a lot of discussion from a lot of people. We need to reduce and we need to eliminate single use plastics. We need to go to refillable solutions. We need to increase infrastructure and recycling. Absolutely. But we also need to deal with the problem today. So we need to look at the forest and the trees.

There are many efforts underway: innovation around alternative materials, bio plastics, innovate refillable solutions. But how long will those innovations take? What percent of the total plastic use cases will be addressed by refillable solutions? Maybe 20%? How long will it take to change supply chains? We need to solve the problem today and tomorrow. And we can do these things simultaneously.

The problem is, it’s an incredibly fragmented and inefficient marketplace right now. You’ve got producers and consumers of plastic, many of whom are well intended and want to do the right thing, but don’t have an avenue to do it. I talked to many companies who say, “can you just get us more recycled feedstock that we can increase the amount of recycled content in our products?” And the answer is no, I can’t. Because the infrastructure isn’t there. There’s over a trillion dollars of infrastructure missing on the collection, transportation and recycling, particularly in emerging markets.

And then on the other side, you’ve got project providers who would love to do the work, but they have no capital, they have no economic incentives, and there’s no structure within which to do it. Because you need standards, you need certification, you need traceability, et cetera. So that’s where the Plastic Credit Exchange (PCX) comes in. PCX believes that the problem of plastic waste entering nature can be solved– now. We can eliminate that 10 million tons of plastic entering nature today. And we can even start eating into the debt of plastic that is out there in nature. But it takes economic incentives.

For a nickel, you can clean up a kilogram of plastic, collect it, put it in the right place, recycle it where it can be recycled, otherwise manage it more properly. So how does it work? Very simple. Everybody’s heard about offsetting in carbon, PCX is doing that in plastics. Start by baselining your footprint and understanding what your starting point is, then set goals, and then PCX activates our ecosystem of partners all over the world who are doing the work. And you fund that through the purchase of these credits. And then that feeds the collection, the transportation, and any other activity to properly manage that waste.

PCX has been doing this for a few years and we already have five of the top ten consumer packaged goods companies as partners. We even have government agencies like USAID, and others. Some of these players are supporting projects and investing in the infrastructure to expand these projects. They’re also investing in community based collection like the project led by female micro entrepreneurs in the Philippines, who get additional income by collecting plastic waste from local community aggregating sorting, and then the program takes that plastic off to a recycling center on their behalf.

We have launched what I sort of refer to as the “Airbnb of plastics.” The idea is to remove the friction and make it as transparent, verifiable and easy as possible to take action. You can come onto our PCX platform, browse projects by simply signing up with an email, by price point by plastic type, by geography, etc, and then you can literally stick it in your basket and check out and drive that impact.

And then more importantly, or as importantly, PCX uses blockchain for what it was originally intended for: traceability. It is an immutable ledger. So every project that we list has to go through a certification process to ensure what they’re doing has additional impact over what would have happened otherwise has the right labor standards in place. One of our projects has taken an informal waste picker community and turned them into full time employees with medical benefits.

We trace collection on the blockchain and that’s the beautiful thing about plastic versus carbon. It is really hard to calculate the carbon sequestration effect of planting trees that 30 years from now will produce some impact. But with plastic, you pick it up, scan it, weigh it, transport it, scan it, weigh it, recycle it, scan it, weigh it and you’re done. And it is verified. And it is a claim that any company can make with confidence because we have all of the information on our blockchain ledger, publicly available for anybody to look at. And you can see the certificates that are then produced for each, each participant.

PCX is just getting started–33 million kilograms. That’s not a drop in the bucket yet. We need more projects, more liquidity and market based forces to drive scalability.

For more on this topic, join us at Techonomy Climate 2023 in Silicon Valley, March 28th, where we dive deeper into the plastics crisis and again will be joined by our friends at PCX. Register your interest below.

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