Beat Plastic Pollution

What Role Can Incentive Schemes Play In Tackling The Plastic Crisis?

Last month’s historic UN resolution to end plastic pollution might have highlighted the scale of the problem ahead of us, but as work now starts on a legally-binding agreement, questions still remain about the best way forward to deal with the millions of tons of plastic produced every year.

This is one instance where the figures really do speak for themselves. Some experts estimate around 11 million tons of plastic waste flow into oceans every year and warn this may triple by 2040.

The recycling and reuse of plastic bottles, cans and other materials will be key to tackling this global crisis, but what role can incentive schemes play? Can they encourage people to not just throw away household items and help build a more circular economy?

There is certainly no shortage of innovative ideas out there. Only last week (28 March), the Department of Municipalities and Transport in Abu Dhabi launched a new scheme where people can get free trips on public buses in exchange for handing in empty plastic bottles.

In the first phase of the initiative, a plastics deposit machine will be installed in Abu Dhabi’s main bus station enabling passengers to exchange empty plastic containers for points.

The points are then transferred to a bus card, which calculates the fare required for the trip and automatically deducts it from the cash value stored in the card via the tariff machines installed at bus entrances and exits.

Such a scheme could be a “double win” as it encourages people to use public transport and recycle at the same time.

Sander Defruyt, who leads the new plastics economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said deposit schemes for cans and bottles have been proven to increase the recycling rate in many countries.

He told Forbes bottles and cans handed in under deposit schemes are of better quality, so can be recycled easier and have been proven to reduce litter rates in areas where they operate, because people are less inclined to throw objects away in the street.

Defruyt added that in countries like Germany and Belgium schemes have existed for decades to reuse plastic and glass bottles, rather than just process and recycle them.

But he also added that recycling is “just one part of the solution” when it comes to the global plastic waste crisis.

“If it’s not designed to be recyclable, then you can have as many incentive schemes as you want. It’s still not going to happen,” he said.

“We definitely cannot recycle away our way out of this. We need to start by eliminating plastics that we know are problematic items, innovating the plastics we do need, and making sure we circulate all the plastics we use. We still have a lot of single-use carrier bags and unnecessary packaging, which we could simply avoid and eliminate. That’s still the most direct way to avoid plastic waste and pollution.”

Another issue is how to encourage people who have not traditionally recycled or reused bottles and other items. Suwar Mert, the founder and CEO of the smartphone app Bower, said the key is to make “recycling fun and rewarding”.

Bower allows users to scan anything with a barcode, from milk cartons to crisp packets, and receive money, coupons or discounts when they take the packaging to a recycling point.

Since first launching in 2015, it has become the most popular apps in its native Sweden, with 300,000 users in the Nordic region, who recycle more than 1.4 million packages every month.

It has also recently raised €4.1 million ($4.7 million) in a late seed round to expand into other territories, including the UK.

Mert said it is important to find out what can encourage people to recycle. For some people, it will be a cash reward or redeemable vouchers, but others will be more interested in seeing how much carbon they will have saved by recycling the item, or how your local area is doing in terms of recycling.

“Everyone has a smartphone,” explained Mert. “They spend a lot of time on their phone. But it’s not enough to say we have a recycling app, because you need to have triggers. One trigger might be to see how your friends and family are doing on the app and you want to beat them.

“We try to engage with our users and see what triggers them the most, because it’s not enough if they only use it five times and then forget about it. You want a high retention rate, so they come back and continue recycling. That is the only way we can solve this issue.”

Producers also have a key role to play in tackling the issue. Felipe Ambra, global vice president at Corona of Anheuser-Busch InBev, said last year it became the first beverage brand to achieve a net-zero plastic footprint, meaning it recovers more plastic from the environment than released into the world.

The global beer band has also introduced a scheme where customers can use collected plastic to pay for Corona beer at their iconic beach bars.

Ambra added: “Then we realized, you can’t fix a problem you can’t see, and we wanted to show people that plastic does not disappear – so we created Plastic Reality, ​​an augmented reality experience designed to show people their own personal plastic use for a year at the intimacy of their own homes, and how our trash ends up on the beach, polluting paradise. Our goal is to provide inspiration and tools to enable long-term, behavioral change.”

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