This post was sponsored by rePurpose, all thoughts my own.
Plastic. It’s a pervasive and increasingly popular area of focus for all of us. Plastic is everywhere; it’s floating in our oceans, filling up landfills, breaking down into smaller pieces that make their way into every ecosystem and the food chain, and we need to do something about it.
While each of us making efforts to lower our waste is vital (here’s a guide to getting started), we also need systemic overhauls globally to deal with our waste properly. For decades these problems have been ‘out of sight out of mind’ for the privileged few, as richer countries like the US and the UK have shipped plastic waste abroad. However, in 2017 China, who used to take 12.6 billion pounds of the world’s plastic waste annually without the infrastructure to effectively process it, stopped accepting all new imports. This has diverted waste to countries like India, Thailand, and Malaysia, which has caused its own set of issues to the point where Malaysia is now sending waste back to the countries it came from.
The system, as it is, is clearly not working.
Some of the more obvious things those of us in the Global North can do are: stop producing so much waste, push companies to implement circular design solutions, and invest in our domestic waste and recycling systems in order to also allow countries in other parts of the world to deal with their own waste systems properly too (something which China is now doing).
But, beyond this, there is now another option. It’s called plastic offsetting, and it might just be one of the best plastic initiatives I’ve encountered.
One of the main organisations focusing on plastic offsetting is social enterprise rePurpose. Their work, which is based in India, helps you understand your unique plastic footprint, prevents plastics from entering waterways or landfill, helps informal waste workers out of poverty, and guides you on the journey to reduce your plastic consumption at home too.
Who are rePurpose?
rePurpose was born out of a visit to Deonar East in Mumbai, Asia’s 2nd largest landfill. Each day 9000 metric tonnes of unsegregated waste enters Deonar East, but that’s not all you’ll find there.
Amongst the mountains of trash you’ll find waste pickers: workers who make a meagre living by scavenging the landfill with their bare hands for waste like plastic and metal to be sold for recycling. There are over 50 million of these informal waste workers around the world, who spend their entire lives dealing with the consequences of our overconsumption and waste. In India, a waste picker typically spends 12 hours a day scavenging to earn less than $5.
It’s a toxic occupation: life expectancy for those in the area of these dumps is a mere 39 years old (it’s 73.5 for the wider location), and sites like these often make the news when methane from food waste catches fire, causing collapses in the trash heap that can bury waste pickers alive, sometimes without being found for years.
rePurpose knew that there had to be a better way, a way that made it easy and engaging for us to understand the waste we make, take responsibility for it, and reduce our footprint, while also helping these waste workers out of their current situation.
How does it work?
Step 1: Understand your footprint
It all starts with the interactive calculator that helps individuals worldwide understand their consumption. rePurpose’s 3-minute survey is easy to use but cleverly designed to help us see how the waste we create adds up, because finding solutions is always easier once we understand the problem and how we’re actively contributing to it.
You’ll be given a unique insight into your footprint in numbers, as well as clear data on what areas in your life you’re most wasteful in, giving you specific targets and things to consider when it comes to improving.
Step 2: Offset your waste to go #PlasticNeutral
After you have your footprint, you have the ability to offset it. Reflecting the true cost of ethical collection and recycling, rePurpose charges $0.5 per kg of your footprint, which translates to roughly 3-5 dollars per month. This money is used to put a price on low-value plastics, such as candy wrappers, takeaway containers, and plastic bags. These plastics are commonly found littering streets, beaches, and landfills because they are extremely difficult to recycle. While waste workers may collect other high-value materials like PET and HDPE to sell on to recycling facilities, these plastics aren’t collected as they lack any financial value. Instead, they are left to sit in landfills or drift into natural environments to slowly break down and enter ecosystems and food chains.
Therefore, the most effective way to offset your plastic footprint is to deal with plastic that would have otherwise never been recycled. rePurpose instead pay informal workers, using our offset fees, to intercept these low-value plastics before they reach oceans or landfills.
This work also moves marginalised people out of waste scavenging in landfills and streets and into better jobs. rePurpose currently work with three partners who run ethical and efficient waste systems to employ these informal workers in safer environments: Saahas Zero Waste in Bangalore, Waste Ventures India in Hyderabad, and Aasra Welfare Association in Mumbai. Each organisation provides fair wages to all workers, and rePurpose have full-time monitoring and evaluation staff placed at each location to certify ethical standards are upheld and that the #PlasticNeutral promise is actually met.
After the plastic is collected, it is used to make bricks and roads or co-processed through pyrolysis, a practice that uses low-value plastics as a replacement energy source in industries that would typically burn coal to meet their high energy demands (e.g. cement kilns).
Essentially, your small monthly fee is used to provide safe and well-paid employment to waste workers, as well as stopping low-value plastics ever reaching landfill or the oceans and redirecting it into a circular economy model instead.
Step 3: Guiding you towards zero waste
As well as this vital offsetting, rePurpose move beyond this to help you truly go #PlasticNeutral. The footprint calculator helps to identify what areas of your life are most wasteful, and rePurpose use this data to provide regular personalised tips to help you reduce your footprint as you continue on a low waste journey. This advice is delivered straight to your inbox, motivating and helping you continue to move forward into a less wasteful world.
A circular future
As we all continue to reduce our impact, the networks rePurpose have established can in time form the basis of systems that truly close the loop. For example, while their partner organisations currently employ waste workers to collect, clean, and process waste that is sent to recycling, these very networks can eventually transition to product-recovery models where reusable packaging is collected from consumers, cleaned, and subsequently sent back to manufacturers for reuse. The more we all work to lower our waste and offset the rest, the more we are able to help everyone transition to a more circular economy.
rePurpose’s model works so well because it is designed to both strengthen the systems on the ground that prevent plastic from ending up in oceans and environments in the first place, alongside looking forward to the future, creating increasingly circular models that phase out the need for new plastics at all. I believe that their combination of understand, offset and improve is a system that many of us can get on board with, and it’s a system that I am more than happy to support.