Could a market-driven intervention be a solution to the world’s plastic problem?

What you lookin’ at? It floated into my mouth!

What might a mining magnate have to do with the world’s plastic crisis? Perhaps more than anyone realised.

It turns out that Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest – one of WA’s most well known mining & cattle station magnates – is also currently in the middle of a PhD at UWA focussing on the ecology of pelagic wildlife, and on the implications for conservation and fisheries management.

He has also helped to write a paper recently published in Marine Science which argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can finally stop the production and pollution of plastic. More specifically, a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic to drive a transition to recycled plastic, and thus a slowdown in the production of new plastic.

It is more than a bit exciting to hear about a potential mechanism such as this given that:

So what’s Twiggy and co.’s idea? An initiative by the name “Sea The Future” (and don’t we love a good play on words), which proposes to change the old traditional linear economic model into a circular economy, kickstarted by a nice fat injection of cash (the VC – Voluntary Contribution) by plastic producers themselves as per this lovely diagram:

Linear plastic economy (left) -> transition plastic economy (middle) -> circular polymer economy (right) (Source: Forrest et al, 2019

The VC is proposed to achieve the following:

  • Transform plastic waste into a commodity, rewarding recovery & increasing recycling;
  • Incentivise the plastic industry to reduce fossil fuel use & find recycled/degradable alternatives;
  • Make a material contribution to reducing climate change;
  • Stop health impacts on humans & other species;
  • Improve the profitability of polymer-to-polymer technologies & other related industries;
  • Prioritise technologies which keep plastics within the economy; and
  • Generate money to develop waste management infrastructure, encourage innovation, and deal with legacy pollution issues (those plastic rubbish islands!).

Twiggy and co. suggest that placing a value on plastic would both drive its collection and divert new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution (estimated at A$738 per tonne) would encourage the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material. The cost would be passed onto consumers via the trillions of individual plastic items that are consumed by all of us, and expected to be negligible (a few cents per cup of coffee). That would certainly make it a lot easier for people to get onboard.

While such a move could be seen as anti-competitive, Twiggy has gone so far as to check with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.

Implementing and governing such a system would of course be somewhat complex. especially to avoid cheating/corruption but it appears very possible.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (N. Pacific Subtropical Gyre) (Source: Alaska Fish Radio)

So will capitalism be coming to rescue us from one of our largest environmental issues? Will such an economic model be the magic silver bullet to our plastic problem? Time will tell, but it seems like a great place to start.