Living with plastic


We live in a plastic world, no two ways about that. And, whatever we say or think of plastic and plastic products, an outright ban on production or sale is simply unrealistic at this point. I am sure alternative materials are in the works. Eventually, plastic will be replaced, much like how plastic replaced wood, metal, glass, and stone in a lot of applications. But plastic will not be leaving us anytime soon.

Recycling plastic waste, for me, is an acceptable option for now. However, recycling all discarded plastic is easier said than done. Consumers have a big role to play in this, particularly in making their plastic waste suitable for recycling. The burden of preparation, I believe, must be shared by consumers themselves who enjoy the convenience of using plastic products.

Manufacturers should be made responsible for their products and their impact on the environment. However, consumers of these products share in that great responsibility. While consumers can opt to shun plastic use as much as possible, this is easier said than done. The alternative is to limit plastic use, and then reuse or dispose responsibly by recycling.

To prepare plastic refuse for recycling takes a lot of effort at the consumer level: rinsing or washing when necessary; sorting; cutting into smaller pieces when needed; popping plastic bubbles and tightly packing plastic bags; and then bringing the items to the local material recycling facility or to drop off points for such purpose. The entire effort entails time and resources as well as energy.

But such is the responsibility that goes along with the convenience of using plastic products. And if people choose to enjoy this convenience without exercising any responsibility for plastic use, then we will end up with a world drowning in refuse. Already, our waste problem is at crisis level, with much of it now polluting particularly waterways and oceans.

The key is educating consumers on how to properly dispose of plastic waste and how to prepare them for reuse or recycling. This is the main challenge for manufacturers, producers, and the government. We need to make it easy and convenient for people to properly dispose of plastic waste. We also need to educate them on how to best go about it. We can also provide incentives to communities for reusing and recycling plastic waste.

It is laudable that that a group of recyclers are turning bottles, single-use sachets, and snack food wrappers into building materials. Reuters reported that this group uses the Plastic Flamingo, or The Plaf, to collect waste, shred them, and then mold them into posts and planks called “eco-lumber.” The end-product can be used for fencing, decking, or even shelters.

“[It] is 100% upcycled material, 100% made from plastic waste materials, we also include some additives and colorants and it is rot-free, maintenance-free, and splinter-free,” Reuters quoted Erica Reyes, The Plaf’s chief operating officer, as saying. The social enterprise has collected over 100 tons of plastic waste to date.

But the big challenge is that “people are unaware of how to dispose of these plastics,” said Allison Tan, The Plaf’s marketing associate. “We give that avenue that instead of putting it in landfills or oceans… you give it to recycling centers like us and we would upcycle them into better products.”

In a forum co-hosted by the World Bank and the Norwegian Embassy in Manila in 2019, I recall a private sector representative who noted that the Philippines did not produce nearly as much plastic products as other countries, and yet it was among the top producers of plastic waste in our oceans. From this, I gathered that the issue was not our production or use of plastic, but our inability to properly dispose of our plastic waste.

But effective solid waste management means taking “politics” and “corruption” out of local garbage collection and disposal. It also means educating people and giving them the means to reuse and recycle particularly plastic waste. Manufacturers, producers, and consumers should be incentivized rather than penalized for doing their part in addressing the plastic waste issue.

I recall a study by the University of Baghdad, by researchers Zainab Ismail and Enas A Al-Hashmi, that used waste plastic in concrete mixture as aggregate replacement. After 86 experiments and 254 tests, the duo concluded that reusing waste plastic as a sand-substitution aggregate in concrete could reduce the cost of construction materials and address plastic waste problems.

Research at the University of Bath also concluded that plastic waste could be a viable partial replacement for sand in structural concrete. The study, done in partnership with the Goa Engineering College in India, showed that plastic waste in place of sand in concrete could help in the reuse of plastic waste as well as allow the sustainable use of a natural resource like sand.

A study by Ahmad Jassim of the University of Basrah, meantime, concluded that “plastic cement” could be produced from mixing high density polyethylene waste (used plastic bottles and food crates) and Portland cement. He also noted that this cement’s “density was decreased, ductility increased, and workability improved,” resulting in the production of “lightweight materials.”

Plastic waste can also be mixed with bitumen for road construction, using a technology first credited to Professor Rajagopalan Vasudevan of Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai. Plastic-bitumen composite is said to have better wear resistance than standard asphalt; does not absorb water; and, has better flexibility which results in smoother, lower-maintenance roads.

“Plastic roads” already exist in the Indian cities of Pune, Bengaluru, and Jamshedpur; and, in Indonesia’s Bali, Surabaya, Bekasi, Makassar, Solo, and Tangerang. In 2018, the Dutch company Volkerwessels built a bicycle path made of recycled plastic in Zwolle, in northeast Netherlands. And in 2019, the UK Department of Transport announced a GBP1.6 million trial of a plastic road technology developed by Scottish reinforcement company MacRebur.

Locally, in late 2019, San Miguel Corp. (SMC) laid plastic-mixed asphalt on a 1,500 square meter pilot site in its logistics center in General Trias, Cavite. The road used 900 kilos of recycled plastic as a binder with bitumen to produce the asphalt. The road, meant to withstand heavily loaded trucks and equipment, is said to exceed Public Works standards.

To me, all these studies and developments point to the viability of repurposing plastic waste into something highly productive and useful. Such efforts also keep plastic waste from ending up in our oceans, and, at the same time, allow the more sustainable use of natural resources like sand, river pebbles, and rocks as concrete aggregates for construction.

But the plastic recycling effort needs help. Lawmakers and policymakers should consider funding education and information campaigns and providing support and incentives to industries and consumers that reuse, recycle, and repurpose plastic waste. A bigger step, perhaps for the new administration, is to consider allowing the use of plastic waste technologies in public works construction.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council