Plasticity and the circular economy might not immediately come to mind when you imagine a tropical island of palm trees framed by glorious white sand beaches and clear blue water.

That’s what Doug Woodring was imagining when he visited Palau, a chain of islands in the Western Pacific ocean, nearly ten years ago. What he found while he was diving was something far less beautiful than he’d expected.

“20 metres under the water, suspended by their partial buoyancy, there were all kinds of different plastic wrappers and bags,” Doug said.

“It was very eye-opening, as I started thinking about where this stuff would be coming from, and if it's here in the middle of nowhere, then we all really have a big problem,” he said.

So what’s the solution? While there’s no silver bullet, Ocean Recovery Alliance recently hosted the Plasticity Forum in Sydney, and is working with global leaders on sustainable solutions and market opportunities for transforming plastic waste into a valuable resource.

Doug Woodring of the Ocean Recovery Alliance says that the issue of plastic won’t disappear in our lifetime.

Plastics and the circular economy

The event brings together innovators, environmentalists, waste experts and industry to look at plastics, waste and recycling infrastructure and solutions for upcycling.

Doug founded the Ocean Recovery Alliance after he realised the issue of plastics wasn’t going away by itself.

He also founded the Plasticity Forum, where he spoke at the most recent event in Sydney.

The concept on everyone’s mind was the circular economy - how do you take the plastics that exist (in their “afterlife”), and make them into a business opportunity?

“It's not about bans or taxes or those kind of changes,” Doug said, “In reality it's all about how to recover and make use of materials that are needed in their “first life,” but which become problematic to the environment in their “afterlife” when the product or packaging’s first use has finished.

The Forum is the first time Coca-Cola participated in the event, which offered the opportunity to further explore what a circular economy means to the company.

In January, Coca-Cola announced an industry-first goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030. The company and its global network of bottling partners will tackle the ambitious goal, which is part of a plan called “World Without Waste,” through a renewed focus on the entire packaging lifecycle – from how bottles and cans are designed and made, to how they’re recycled and repurposed.

Sarah Prestwood, senior external affairs manager at Coca-Cola South Pacific  presented at the Forum. She said being the world’s biggest non-alcoholic beverage company comes with unique challenges and opportunities.

“We know our challenge. While we can reach every far flung corner of the globe, how can we support every package to have a value and a life beyond its initial use? Packaging innovation means working openly and strategically with suppliers to develop sustainable packaging from start to finish.

“It also means sometimes looking outside of our business at what others can bring,” Sarah said.

Working on solutions

The Plasticity Forum is part of a much larger global conversation about waste management and resource recovery. The idea, according to Doug, is to give innovators, designers, entrepreneurs and big companies as many opportunities as possible to hear each other's piece of the puzzle, and find innovative, collaborative solutions that can scale.

For Sarah, solutions are focused on inspiring systemic solutions to waste challenges.

“We’re taking action to support the collection and recycling of as much packaging as we put out into the marketplace,” she said. “Collaboration with people like the business start-up we support looks at options around circular economy. The Plasticity Forum was a fantastic opportunity to meet others in this space around ways we can advance more sustainable packaging innovations.”

One of Doug’s focuses is currently on the catchment of waste in waterways, and the potential for it to become its own self-sustaining industry. The Global Alert app gathers data on rubbish in waterways via community reporting, and engages with communities to harness it for their own solutions.

“When you start catching [waste in waterways], then you start to think: Where does it come from? How can we prevent it? Can the stuff that we caught be turned into something interesting? Can this be used for recycling? Can we use these new machines, many of which were presented at Plasticity, that can take mixed, dirty plastic that isn't normally recycled, into products that have mass market use, and value, such as for housing material?” he said.

There’s no easy solution, but Doug is committed to moving toward creating a global ecosystem of awareness, catchment, reduction, new use, recycling, and water quality improvement.

“We all have to address this thing together as a team, because we all need to use this material in our daily lives. In every company that we all run, it's being used in some way, shape, or form, and so the challenge is how we can all better recover it, or not let it get out, or make it more efficient,” said Doug.