Can Entrepreneurs Help Solve the Plastic Pollution Problem?


The search for innovative solutions to societal problems by encouraging entrepreneurs to get involved is one of the notable features of the current tech boom centered in and around San Francisco.

As part of that trend, the SF-based, global non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition has launched a “Think Beyond Plastic” competition with a $50,000 first prize investment, plus other benefits to the most innovative business idea for reducing the burden of plastic pollution.

We interviewed Daniella Dimitrova Russo, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition about the contest.

What is the "Think Beyond Plastic" competition?
DDR: A contest for products, solutions, infrastructure services and materials – any of which must result in the measurable reduction of plastic pollution. Our goal is to stir innovation and through that, to help grow interest in developing solutions to support the growing interest in alternatives to plastic.

Who's eligible and who do you anticipate the contestants will be?
DDR: Businesses. This is definitely a contest for business solutions. There are many excellent ideas that come from the non-profit sector, but we seek to stir the interest in the investment and business community. Where there is innovation and interest, there will be solutions and alternatives.

Is a goal to help foster disruptive technologies that can help curb global plastic pollution?
DDR: Yes, absolutely. The problem of plastic pollution cannot be addressed by small incremental changes in how we operate today. We need bold, innovative, disruptive thinking and solutions that will challenge the status quo and be attractive to consumers and businesses alike.

What will be the timing and process (and sponsors) for the competition?
DDR: All details are on the website. Deadline for submissions of business plans is March 10. The event will take place on June 13, 2013. This is the first event of its kind.

What is the mission of the Plastic Pollution Coalition?
DDR: Our vision is a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on people, animals and the environment. Towards this goal, we work to eliminate disposable plastics, and reduce the planetary plastic footprint. This is only possible through the combined efforts of individuals, organizations and businesses, and so we have formed the Plastic Pollution Coalition to create a common goal. We all work to educate the public on the issues with plastic; to encourage policy-makers to support our efforts and also to provide long-term economic incentives to businesses that invest in alternatives to plastic; and to form a global, international alliance.

How extensive is the problem globally and is it getting better or worse over time?
DDR: In the last 10 years alone we have produced more plastic than in the previous 90 years. According to latest stats, plastic produced in 1957 was 1.5 metric tons, to reach in 265 metric tons in 2010. Plastics usage is expanding and expected to grow at a steady pace of 3–4 percent per year. Particular, rapid industrialization in populous countries such as India and China has resulted in an accelerated pace of plastic materials growth.

From being primarily used as an alternative to natural materials, such as leather, wood and other, it has become the primary source material for everything – from tooth sealants, to can lining, to children’s toys to items made specifically to be discarded. The greatest proportion of plastic pollution is generated by plastic packaging and disposable plastic.
Manufacturers have embarked on a mission to convince the public that convenience equals use of plastic, which has created huge issues with disposal of plastic items. Discarded plastic can be found in some of the planet’s most iconic parks, in the ocean, in riverbeds and watersheds, on land, in the desert and ultimately in our bodies.

In what ways can you envision technology and entrepreneurs contributing to solutions?
DDR: We need entrepreneurs to think of exciting new ways to replace the use of plastic throughout the supply chain. This will require innovative packaging designs; new products; new ways of collecting plastic, sorting and cleaning it up to be recycled – and the creation of small, local community based businesses. Building a new economy around alternatives to plastic is not only a possible solution; it is a moral imperative.

Are local, state, national, or international governmental organizations becoming aware of the extent of plastic pollution, and are there initiatives that may prove useful in reducing it?
DDR: Many governments have taken action to reduce their exposure to plastic pollution. Bangladesh banned plastic bags as a result of the floods exacerbated by drainpipes clogged with plastic bags. Rwanda has banned plastic and makes sure visitors do not bring any with them at the border. China has banned plastic bags. Ireland has put a tax on them. And many municipalities follow suit. Bans are very effective way of stopping the economic damage of plastic bags. (See Russo’s article in the Wall Street Journal for more details.)

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