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A Plastics Treaty Will Be Grand, but this Recycling Innovator in Indonesia Isn't Waiting
A pop-up Sustain What conversation with a sustainability-focused entrepreneur building a plastic trash-to-resource business across eastern Indonesia
Not long ago - like many others online - I was fixated by an appalling #plasticsmonster creeping through a newly opened irrigation canal in eastern Indonesia. As you almost assuredly know, the ocean plastic crisis starts on land, and a prime source is Southeast Asia.
The video was posted on LinkedIn by Tom Jackson, a co-founder of Honest Ocean Material - a young operation with a vital mission - “to empower local communities by reversing the ocean plastic problem and retrieving the plastic from their communities.”
They’re doing this by spreading the capacity to separate and shred high-quality recycylable material and create a reliable supply chain to serve a variety of companies eager to move to a circular model for success. The focus is villages and towns across the eastern portion of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, but - to my eye at least - this model clearly can travel.
I tracked Jackson down to get the back story. He’s on Lombok, the island just east of Bali. We spoke this morning on a pop-up Columbia Climate School Sustain What webcast.
A hot spot for ocean plastic
Southeast Asia is a particularly important source of plastic waste heading to the sea. You can scope out the ocean end of the plastic pipeline at the Ocean Cleanup web map portal, which shows how 1 percent of the world’s rivers disgorge 80 percent of the plastic to the oceans.
During the chat with Jackson, I was reminded of two Dot Earth Posts.
The first was one I wrote 13 years ago on the “leapfrogging” question: are developing countries destined to repeat Western polluting pathways or can they skip it through policy, technolgy and education?
There was a time not long ago when waterways disgorging into the Hudson River were full of trash (not yet plastic) and industrial effluents.
The post, “No River Should Be Doing That,” centered on video the conservation biologist M. Sanjayan shot of giant heaps of foam rising from a river in Nairobi and drifing over a highway.
I linked back to a New York Times special report I wrote in 1996 about the polluted history and remarkable (if still incomplete) cleanup of the Hudson River. Here’s a passage from that article — focused on the Hudson around Beacon, New York — that I think offers an echo of the plastic-waste explosion in Asia and other develping regions now:
[Shabazz] Jackson, Beacon’s environmental director, recalled how in the 1950’s he and other students riding a crosstown school bus would often pool lunch money before reaching the Fishkill Creek — a Hudson tributary — and make bets on the color of the water. A fabric-dyeing plant upstream kept them guessing.
Pollution shaped other childhood rites, as well, including summertime swims. To avoid dunking heads in tainted water, Mr. Jackson said, “kids in Beacon never learned to dive.”
Other Hudson Valley residents recalled the dense pillows of white foam that would slowly drift by on the river — effluent from factories. Children would compete to see who could get a tossed stone to perch on the fluff.
As I wrote then, “Let’s hope that countries going through their industrial, and polluting, growth spurt now can undergo the same transition, so that there, too, foaming rivers will be a fading memory instead of a jarring sight.”
Here’s the other Dot Earth post that came to mind listening to Jackson describe the work they do to create credible supply chains: “With Imposed Transparency and Concerned Millennials, [Will There Be] a Boom in Corporate Responsibility?”
The work of Honest Ocean convinces me the answer is yes. But that’ll only be the case if there are a lot more determined, distributed, connected innovators out there.
Do listen to our conversation, and weigh in with questions I can forward to him and his partners.
But what about the plastics treaty?
You can join or support innovators like Jackson or you can wait until some magical solution like a treaty is negotiated, ratified and enforced.
I’m thrilled with the efforts underway to build a workable plastics treaty, particularly the growing evidence that key industries and environmental groups are finding unusual concordance on the path to an agreement. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, in particular, has been fostering crosstalk.
Last fall, 85 organizations - including major multinational businesses, financial institutions and nonprofit groups - announced “a common vision for an effective and ambitious Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution.” Negotiations are ongoing.
This video and call to action from The Story of Stuff project is a fresh summary of where things stand. As they say, it’s rare to have Greenpeace and Exxon even remotely aligned.
But I wouldn’t wait for a pact. Treatymaking is a protracted process full of tradeoffs, and the brunt of the work that’s needed to make goals achievable has to happen on the ground in regions that are the top sources.
That’s why I plan to do more Sustain What webcasts and posts on Honest Ocean and other related initiatives. And I hope to help by connecting them with other projects and companies doing related work elsewhere.
When Tom Jackson described their need for simple durable shredding machines and the lack of electricity in many communities, I immediately thought of the work of Harish Hande, the founder of Selco, a foundation and business working in villages across South Asia to fill energy needs with renewable sources - including grain mills and all manner of machinery run on solar power.
I’ve interviewed Harish Hande many times. I’ve just connected Hande and Jackson.
See Pew Charitable Trusts for a lot of valuable analysis and policy work on plastic waste reduction. Their 2020 report, Breaking the Plastic Wave: Top Findings for Preventing Plastic Pollution, remains a vital resource. Here’s a key diagram.
Postscript - I forgot to include a link to this great Columbia Climate School State of the Planet post by Renee Cho exploring the latest science on ocean plastic sources and impacts: “How Do We Clean Up All That Ocean Plastic?”
Her piece focuses partly on the work of Beizhan Yan, a Lamont Associate Research Professor at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he specializes in plastic pollution. Here’s a valuable excerpt:
“To me, plastic is still a good thing,” said Yan. “With it, you use less steel, wood, and other resources. But the only way to correctly use it is to recycle it, reuse it, and repurpose it, rather than discard it in the environment. Pathetically, less than 10 percent of plastics are recycled right now. We should actively research affordable solutions to prevent plastics from getting into the environment.”
Towards that end, Yan is the director of the Plastic Pollution Analysis and Sustainable Solutions Network recently funded by the Columbia Climate School, bringing together more than 30 researchers working in environmental law, engineering, life cycle analysis, environmental health, and more.
“I think that for human beings, plastic pollution is the biggest pollution issue right now in terms of the total amount of the pollutants being generated, and how challenging it is to deal with,” said Yan. “But if we work together, we can solve these issues in the future.”
And that leads right back to the critical work being done out in the field by Jackson and so many others.
Here’s a little takeway video from Honest Ocean’s TiktTok flow (posted on YouTube):
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