Challenges in plastic waste recycling drive new business opportunities

By Elesha George

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A drop in revenues from exporting plastic waste — coupled with rising costs of doing business — has made it almost a duty for Antigua and Barbuda to find innovative ways to recycle items that are usually thrown away.

“Maybe 10 years ago we were getting 15 cents a pound for plastic regrind, now we’re only getting about 3 or 4 cents a pound,” said Mario Bento, chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Waste Recycling Corp (ABRWC).

“Increasing freight and handling fees, oil prices are increasing and this is becoming a bigger problem every day, so it makes less and less sense to export recyclable materials from the island.”

It is also difficult to find export markets for the country’s plastic waste, which otherwise largely ends up in landfills. In 2017, for example, China banned imports of most plastic waste, forcing global plastic waste trade to decline.

“The previous model was that we collect material, compact it, grind it up and then ship it all to China. This was no longer an option, so we need to find really innovative ways to continue recycling,” Bento explained.

According to a 2020 audit conducted by Asia Pacific Waste Consultants (APWC) and shared by Bento at the Antigua and Barbuda Recycling Day Symposium on March 18 — Global Recycling Day — Antigua imports 3,800 tons of plastic annually, of which 3,250 tons are actual got to the landfill.

“Seventeen percent of that is unaccounted for… which means it got into the environment; It either ends up in the marine environment or it gets trapped in reservoirs or wastes around the island,” he said.

According to Bento, the audit also showed that ABWRC (a Rotary Sundown idea project) recycled only 3 percent of this plastic waste.

So what’s the solution? Well, ABWRC is considering introducing a plastic bottle refund policy – similar to the one introduced by the Department of Health last year – as a way to reduce waste. Customers will receive a small fee for recycling their plastic containers once this goes into effect. The expectation is that it will increase recycling rates in the country.

Another idea is to make items like furniture out of plastic instead of exporting it.

One of the speakers at the recent symposium, Marine Project Officer at the National Union for Conservation of Nature, Joao Sousa, believes the solution should start with understanding the source of the waste, qualifying and quantifying it, and then preventing it from entering the oceans.

To do this, we would have to calculate how much plastic, in what format, and in what quantity is produced by each sector; what can be recycled to create new value chains and products; and identify what can be done with the plastics that cannot be recycled.

“All the plastic in the ocean was in our hands once and we just let it slide,” he noted.

The overall goal is to boost the economy by engaging with inorganic waste to create circular economy solutions by supporting economically viable projects.

Grant Kendzior, CEO and Founder of Eco Breakthroughs, has the project that could potentially further reduce Antigua’s plastic waste problem.

His EcoCenter project, which he launched in 2019, supports “Ökopreneurs” in starting a sustainable business from recycled plastic waste.

The EcoCenter acts as a central hub, utilizing upcycling machines and other tools, as well as online education and coaching, and support for ecopreneurs.

“We are equally focused on people, planet and profit,” he said, explaining that the company serves people in the early stages of development before they found a startup.

He hopes to develop this initiative in Antigua after noting that the country was ranked among the world’s top polluters per capita at a 2019 United Nations meeting. It was one of 10 Caribbean countries that made the list, he said.

Access to ideas and networks like his has been made possible through the IUCM project Plastic Waste Free Islands, funded by the Norwegian government to promote circular economy solutions to plastic waste and generate income in the Caribbean.

Companies including Antigua and Barbuda Waste Recycling Corp, Zero Waste Antigua and Barbuda NGO, Will’s Recycling and the National Solid Waste Management Authority made special presentations during last Friday’s conference.

Environment Secretary Sir Molwyn Joseph also submitted a video presentation noting that the government is looking beyond plastic in its attempt to rid the country of waste materials.

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