It’s hard to imagine a life in the 21st century without plastic. Whether it is vegetables, cosmetics or household products – it seems like it is close to impossible to escape from plastic. Consequently, the amount of plastic waste has considerably increased over the past decades and worryingly high numbers of plastic have ended up in our oceans. What needs to happen to change our consumption behaviour?
First, we need to set the right incentives to induce more efforts in reducing, reusing or recycling plastic for the consumer and the industry. Recycling is often regarded as too resource-intensive, the price of plastic too cheap and the awareness of the damage too low.
The main objective is peer learning
But change could be in the cards: Sam van Til and Nout Kooij, the founders of vanPlestik, found a way to make a use out of plastic waste. Their start-up developed a 3D printer (see the picture above) using filament which is made of 100% recycled plastic. They presented their concept during the Social Tech Tour – a series of site visits to innovative, tech-enabled social enterprises. The main objective is peer learning: letting innovators and practitioners learn from each other. Every edition, hosts and participants co-create a roadmap for one particular real-life challenge.
Raising awareness & sharing knowledge
One of the identified challenges during the tour at vanPlestik is the value of plastic being too low to incentivise consumers to recycle it. The participants of the Social Tech Tour used the co-creation method 'Reverse Brainstorming' to come up with the worst possible ideas to tackle this problem and then reverse them into the opposite, best direction.
For example, one of these worst solutions to incentivise consumers could be to position activist at the corner of a street shouting at bystanders how valuable plastic is. Clearly, this scenario would not help to solve the plastic waste issue. But reversing this outcome emphasises the necessity to involve, inspire and eventually influence people’s behaviour by pointing out new possibilities. People need to understand the importance of environmental protection in a way they can relate to in their daily lives, not by aggressively forcing them.
This form of thinking triggered interesting advices in the following step of the workshop. Suggestions include interactive campaigns to engage consumers, reward schemes or the collaboration with partners with a big audience.
Now concepts: long-term partnerships
Another target vanPlestik is aiming for is the creation of a business model on the basis of long-term collaborations with consumers or other businesses. Nout presented examples of the start-up’s former collaborations, including the partnering with the Dutch retail chain HEMA by turning some of the plastic waste from their stores into trash bins. While this form of closed-loop collaboration is impressive and broadly supported, it still requires partners to recycle and ship their waste, which is a logistical effort that only few want to take on.
This insight highlights the need for a product made of recycled plastic that is 'worth' the effort to recycle in the first place. The workshop showed that creating rewards for consumers is perceived as a strong mechanism to leverage plastic recycling. With the idea to print limited editions, several marketing strategies could be initiated. This could work in collaboration with big brands like Coca-Cola, and thus could create more understanding for where and from whom plastic waste is coming from mostly.
Creating a circular business model
The last issue participants and vanPlestik identified is the need to translate the environmental and societal benefit into a business case. This also requires the support of the government and its execution on the local level.
Co-founder Nout told the story of an artist who came up with a concept that every person is born with a certain amount of plastic. Everytime there is a need for a new product the person has to decide on which other plastic item he or she will give up. The object would get shredded and the 3D printer would turn it into a new product. So the kid’s toy would turn into a teenager’s skateboard and further into an adult’s coffee mug. The amount of plastic would remain limited.
The participants turned this issue into an idea with the core being to add emotional value to the product, and to make the consumption more responsible while reinforcing the sustainability message. The workshop group suggested to translate the message of vanPlestik into a product by implementing 'cause marketing': With every product, impact is made twofold, once by supporting the recycling of plastic, once by contributing to another good cause.
The ideas collected during the co-creation workshop showed that the main challenge is to build a business model that fulfills the ethical and economic needs and norms of the start-up. On the one side, it is necessary for vanPlestik to focus on the sustainability message of their product. On the other side, customers and business partners need to rethink the value and 'true' market price of plastic.
Consequently, raising awareness for the use of the product itself but also the sustainability story behind it is the way to go. This could happen through rewards, special editions or loyalty programs. Moreover, the workshop showed that the recycling/closed-loop system needs to happen on the local level and be applicable and replicable nearly everywhere.
The process of including consumers in the plastic recycling system has to be interactive but easy enough to make it worth the effort. If these requirements are fulfilled, we are one step closer to a circular constructed economy in which the value of waste does consider not only the economic indicator but also the social and environmental consequences.
In one matter, however, all participants agreed: The best solution to our plastic waste issue is still to not buy (new) plastic products in the first place. And vanPlestik is secretly hoping that one day their plastic waste based start-up is no longer needed.
Also read these earlier articles on this topic:
- Recycled 3D printer filament?
- Digging into the recycled materials chain
- Low-cost prosthesis: using recycled plastic
This article was written together with Isabella Krammer – the organiser of the Social Tech Tour.