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Businesses Find Clever Ways to Move Beyond Plastic

Think Beyond Plastic conference brought together thought-leaders and entrepreneurs from across the world

Between the two of them, Kris and Emma Barber were wearing more than 40 plastic bottles.

All right, I confess, I wrote that line because it sounds neat. It’s true, as well. The couple’s identical outfits (soft black t-shirts and khaki pants) as well as Kris Barber’s blue fleece jacket were all made from fabric produced from recycled plastic bottles.  “It’s basically just like polyester,” Kris said as he good-naturedly allowed this slightly-incredulous journalist to pull at his t-shirt.

BULGARIA-POLLUTION-RIVERphoto by tedxgp2, on FlickrEvery year, hundreds of thousands of birds and animals die after ingesting plastic trash
on land and water that they mistake for food.

Barber is CEO of DGrade Clothing, a United Kingdom-based company that converts recycled plastic into yarn. “We chip plastic bottles into flakes and extrude them into a fiber which is then spun into a yarn,” he said. The yarn is woven into fabrics that are styled into comfortable and trendy clothing. Talk about upcycling!

Last week, DGrade won the “Most Innovative Business” award at Plastic Pollution Coalition’s inaugural Think Beyond Plastic competition and conference in Berkeley, CA.

The clothing company shared the prize with Pulp Works, a US-based firm that creates compostable packaging from wastepaper that can be used as a replacement for PVC blister packaging, the commonly used packaging material that’s not only toxic but also poses an unexpected health hazard. According to Pulp Works cofounder and CEO Paul Tasner, more than 60,000 people end up in emergency rooms every year with injures sustained while trying to open PVC blister packaging.

The two-day conference, labeled “a celebration of disruptive innovations” to the conventional use of plastic in products and infrastructure services, brought together 200 participants from around the world, including innovators like Barber and Tasner, as well as thought-leaders and entrepreneurs from as far as Malaysia and United Arab Emirates. More than 100 entrepreneurs with ideas for everything from digital apps to plastic-free grocery stores submitted their business plans for the competition.

Emceed by Hollywood actor Ed Begley, Jr, the conference included talks by food activist Dan Imhoff, behavioral scientist Leandro Herrero, and 16-year-old activist Prashanth Ramakrishna, as well as special appearances by celebrity restaurateur Alice Waters and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Each of the talks and presentations explored the connections between disruptions and social change and looked into ways in which we, as a society, can move beyond our addiction to plastic.

photo of smiling people holding an enormous check Photo courtesy Plastic Pollution Coalition/ and Emma Barber receiving the winners cheque form the Plastic Pollution Coalition
executive director Daniella Russo.

It’s common knowledge now that plastic creates toxic pollution at just about every stage of its existence, from manufacture, to use, to disposal. It’s a material that the biosphere cannot digest. Every year, hundreds of thousands of birds and animals die after ingesting plastic trash that they mistake for food. In many cities in poorer nations like Bangladesh and India discarded plastic bags clog drains and sewers and cause heavy flooding during the rainy season. (Read more about the problems associated with plastic here and here.) 

Despite these well-known facts, we seem incapable (at least so far) of giving up the convenience of plastics. The volume of plastic use is mind-boggling. Take bottled water, for example. It produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste every year, 80 percent of which ends up in landfills and our oceans despite demand from recyclers.

If the alternatives to plastic use and recycling presented at the conference were anything to go by, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about turning around current trends.

It was especially inspiring to hear about innovative companies like EcoPost in Kenya that creates logs made of recycled plastic that can replace timber posts (and has saved 250 acres of forests in the bargain). Or Tru2earth in Santa Cruz, CA, which makes roofing materials from PET plastic. I was really impressed with a place called in.gredients, a small, package-free organic grocery stores in Austin, TX.

Many of these businesses, like household hygiene store BYOB (bring your own bottle) in Malaysia, have extremely small profit margins. They are out there doing what they do because they believe it’s necessary and right. And that, in the end, is what really inspires change.

Behavioral scientist Leandro Herrero summed it up when he said true change works like a “social contagion.” It can only be brought about by the acts (behavior) of individuals and small groups, not by a top-down push from management. As he put it: “No revolution started with training.”

Click here for more information about the Think Beyond Plastic competition and the rest of the winners.

Plastic Pollution Coalition is an Earth Island Institute project that’s working to free the world of the toxic impacts of plastics. The second Think Beyond Plastic competition will take place in 2014.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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