One of the principal problems highlighted for small format plastic waste has been the material volume that these smaller plastics yield. Individually, products such as cup lids, straws, bottle caps, and tear-off condiment containers have little recycling value due to the sorting required in single-stream recycling models. However, in bulk, these materials can have significant recycling value. With current technologies available locally in many regions, small format plastics could be pre-processed before they arrive at the recycling facility or pellet maker. This can be done using a community-based sorting model in conjunction with a service that is specialized for small format plastics such as straws, lids, bottle caps, tear-off condiment containers, and with R&D investment, sachets and foil lids.
Step 1: Community-based sorting
The service would own bins and collect small format plastics from points of consumption. This would initially include mall food courts, cafeterias, and individual restaurants, where such plastics can be easily standardized (e.g., all straws are made of the same material). It could also be extended to grocery stores, parks, and community centers but may require more logistical efforts to ensure that the sorting is accurate. The collection bins would be tailored for the specific plastic items to help ensure proper sorting. For example, the bin for plastic cup lids would have a rectangular slot large enough to fit a lid but not a cup or a plate; the bin for straws would have small holes large enough to fit the straws but nothing else. This would encourage users to separate the lids from the straws, enabling them to easily deposit them in their respective bins. Thus, the sorting effort is shifted to the consumer, and their individual effort will be relatively minimal. Through behavioral analysis and testing, we determine the best layout and setup for such a sorting operation to maximize participation and minimize negative impact on the consumer experience.
Step 2: Collection and shredding
Collection is not a new concept; however, decoupling small format plastic processing from larger items is. At the time of collection, the collection service can check, weigh, record, shred, and compact (optional) the recycled material on site. This not only allows the service vehicles to hold and transport more material, but it significantly reduces the burden on recycling facilities by preprocessing these otherwise low-value materials, transforming them into valuable recyclable commodities. The concept service would allow for small format plastic items to become their own C2C stream since the processing requires more specialization. With the small format volume concentrated into one place, both plastic pellet manufactures and recycling facilities have more incentive to purchase the volume for re-use or to partner with the proposed service to extend their own capabilities.
There are several ways to encourage consumers and establishments to adopt this new recycling/sorting behavior. First, the bins can be made clear (with a clear liner if necessary), allowing customers to see the efforts of their fellow customers and the establishment workers; this would then influence their individual behavior by a phenomenon known as a “mob mentality.” Second, the establishments (or collection service) can keep track of the accumulated items (either in quantity or weight) and display the total amount of recycled material for that establishment, which in addition to contributing to the mob mentality will also allow consumers to see their impact (i.e., “NUMBER pounds/kilograms of plastic waste saved from our landfills since DATE. That’s enough material to make NUMBER widgets or fill NUMBER dump trucks.”). This can also be automated with sensors. Third, for franchise restaurants or municipalities, they can encourage competition among franchisees or individual establishments by recognizing top recyclers (per month/quarter/year) with awards (which can be displayed on site) or even prizes (e.g., municipality or franchise sponsored special events/parties for customers and staff). Franchise recognitions can also extend regionally or nationally for even more competition. Other incentives could also be implemented based on the community, available funding, etc. The goal of these incentives is not just to get consumers to follow along and participate but also to increase awareness and promote excitement about recycling and its positive effects on the community and the environment.
We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts and Figures, Feb. 2010)