Movement against recklessness

What actually makes waste mainstream

Movement against recklessness

More and more people are getting involved in picking up litter.

Plogging, trash challenges and CleanUp Days – all mass movements against waste. There is plenty of waste, but at the center of the clean-up hype is usually the fight against plastic, symbolized above all by the collection of old plastic bottles. Should we therefore avoid plastic? A study comes to a different conclusion: more packaging would be needed if plastic packaging were replaced by alternatives. And plastic also contributes more to a cleaner world than some people think.

Producing less waste and ridding the world of accumulated waste is now a high priority for politicians and the general public. Plastic waste plays a central role in this – not in a negative, but in a positive way.

Plastic creates awareness and advances the circular economy

The images of masses of plastic waste have had an important effect: waste has become the focus of public attention. Furthermore, this should lead to an awareness of effective disposal and innovative recycling, not an aversion to plastic. After all, plastic is one of the most flexible materials of all. Without plastic, there would be no modern world. And waste becomes waste if it is treated carelessly. In this context, it is interesting to note that up to 20 percent more packaging and therefore more waste would be produced if 10 percent of plastic packaging were replaced by alternative materials – as documented by a recent study by the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM).

However, plastic is not only an advanced material that makes products accessible to poorer sections of the population thanks to its low manufacturing costs, it is also proving to be forward-looking when disposed of correctly: the recovery of recyclable materials – which only really got going with plastic waste – is driving the circular economy forward, including advances in material efficiency, recycling and conversion technologies.

Material and thermal recycling systems are among the most ecologically sustainable ways of dealing with plastic waste: old products are turned into new ones or the waste is converted into energy, known as waste-to-energy. The recently passed Building Energy Act (GEG) in Germany even puts waste heat from thermal waste treatment for heating systems on a par with renewable energy, on a par with wind and solar energy. And British scientists have succeeded in producing the flavoring agent vanillin from PET plastic with the help of intestinal bacteria (E. coli), an important contribution to the sustainability of plastic and a milestone for the possibilities of synthetic biology, ac-cording to the researchers.

Mass trends, clean-up days and social initiatives are having an impact

In addition to advances in material and thermal recycling, more and more consumers are getting involved in waste collection. Mindfulness is the keyword, a lifestyle trend that has given rise to the many waste disposal movements. Joggers pick up litter while plogging, walkers and hikers do the same while plalking and pliking, i.e. walking and hiking. Social media users and influencers practice and organize trash challenges. International and regional clean-up events, such as Cleanup Day, are seeing growing numbers of participants – the next one will take place on September 20, 2024.

It is important that in the fight against waste, attention is also drawn to what causes waste – not the material, but how it is handled. For example, studies in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest garbage patch in the world, show that 75 to 86 percent of plastic waste in the sea comes from fishing. In addition, just 10 rivers in Africa and Asia flush the majority of the world’s plastic waste from land into the oceans, mainly due to a lack of disposal systems.

But even here there are positive developments: Where there is a lack of regulated waste disposal structures, initiatives are developing that turn plastic waste into a barter good and source of income. These include the Plasticbank and its motto „Social Plastic“ as well as IMER: a commitment in Mexico in which the Austrian packaging manufacturer Alpla is involved in collecting plastic waste from regional collectors for a fee using its own trucks. In addition, „Ecobricking“ turns plastic bottles into sustainable building materials for houses and furniture.

The German-South African joint project „EcoBrick Exchange“ even uses it to build schools and has received several awards for this, including the Climate Change Award Cape Town, the SEED Award of the United Nations and the Architecture for Social Gains Award. Plastic is therefore valuable in every phase of its material existence.

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