How do we collect plastic waste?

Tl;Dr: The majority of our plastic efforts are door-to-door collection or other smart ways to aggregate waste in one point. We also finance projects with passive technologies that catch plastic in rivers. The smallest fraction of plastic stems from beach cleanups or is directly sourced from the ocean.


Understanding plastic leakage into the oceans

While the data in the graph is a bit outdated (from 2014) the core messages still hold true. Several billion people are living within 50km of coasts, even more so alongside all the big rivers of the world.
That paired with the fact that almost 40% of all households in the world have no access to proper waste management, we don’t need to look far to understand how plastic enters the environment.

If there is no waste collection, the trash is put on the streets, dumped into rivers, the oceans, or just littered into the environment. If there is some form of waste collection, all material will be dumped into one big landfill. These are usually not pollution-secured or covered. So wind and rain can just carry the lightweight plastic into the next stream, from where it will end in the ocean. (Read more about how and why plastic enters the ocean).


The systematic problem of the waste management industry in developing countries

Waste management is typically paid from two sources: tax money and extended producer responsibility. (Extended producer responsibility describes the concept, where the distributor of plastic packaging i.e. the brand, needs to pay a small fee for every piece of packaging they sell. This fee is used to finance the collection of packaging waste. The most prominent example is the Green Dot in Germany.)

If a country is weak on GDP there is less tax money available overall. That leads to a chronic underfunding of waste management. With other issues like extreme poverty, extended producer responsibility was not on the map for a long time. It is also a bit of a chicken and egg problem because if the government asks for money from plastic distributors there also needs to be a service provider to collect the plastic waste.
Long story short, a lot of plastic waste remains uncollected because it is too expensive. It is cheaper to dump the waste on a big pile where nobody sees it and set it on fire than operating proper recovery centers.


Some of the waste however is valuable and traded as a commodity. There is an entire informal sector that organizes itself around collecting, sorting, and recycling raw materials like newspapers, cartons, metals, and certain plastic types. These informal waste pickers roam the streets, landfills and knock on people’s doors where they sometimes even buy or at least take scrap material free of charge from households.
This leads to incredibly high recycling rates compared to developing countries. It helps to fight poverty because it doesn’t require formal education to collect scrap.

At the same time, it amplifies the waste management problem. If a company decides to run door-to-door waste collection to avoid plastic from entering the environment in the first place, it means that they will only receive the waste that the informal sector didn’t want. The cherries are already picked. They are left with all the low value or negative value waste that can’t be recycled. Still, it leads us to our preferred method of collection.

Our preferred method: door-to-door collection

To stop plastic from entering the environment, we need to get to a point where the material is collected as close to the consumer as possible. That’s for two simple reasons. 

A household in India produces between 200-600g of dry waste per week. If it is collected on a household level, there is zero leakage of material in the environment. But, if a bag of 600g of dry waste is littered, the likelihood of finding every piece of waste is slim. 

The second reason is that it is incredibly expensive to pick 600g of non-recyclable packaging. The average weight of the non-recyclable plastic that we collect is anywhere between 1-8g. (Empty chips bags, candy wrapper, plastic bags) Collecting that amount piece by piece does not make sense. So both from an environmental as well as economical perspective, the household collection is the way to go.

It is also the most dignified way to work from a social perspective. It allows for education on the household level - because there is a lot of interaction between the collectors and the waste producers.


Utilizing existing systems

In Germany’s bigger cities, and even on the village level, we’re used to recycling centers, where we are able to bring recyclable materials, or e-scrap or old furniture and mattresses. These places exist on a smaller scale but in much higher numbers in developing countries as well. The so-called waste banks. 

These are places where citizens can drop some of their household waste. Traditionally waste banks only accept recyclable goods. These are aggregated and once there is enough volume and a good enough price, they sell the scrap to recycling centers. We’re now utilizing these waste banks as aggregation points for non-recyclable waste as well. Citizens can now bring their entire dry waste to these stations because we’ll buy the non-recyclable waste from them as well. Before CleanHub it didn’t make any sense for them to accept these waste types.

We’re getting access to the waste banks through our partners Tridi Oasis or Green Worms who already buy scrap material from them.


Empowering micro-entrepreneurs

As mentioned earlier, there are already a lot of people going from house to house to collect recyclable goods. It’s the so-called informal sector. They usually run tiny scrap shops, where they aggregate small volumes and sell them off. They are also able to source non-recyclable plastic waste and are happy to provide us with what they get. 

But still, this is not their favorite material to work with, because it takes a lot of effort to get to significant volumes and their storage space is limited. The pickups need to happen very quickly, which often doesn’t make economic sense. If they have the volumes we’re happy to support them.

Running beach clean-ups

Together with our collection partners we organize and sponsor regular beach cleanups. Cleanups receive a lot of criticism from the waste management industry - especially in Europe. The main point of criticism is that they are not effective and are not solving the problem. This statement in isolation is obviously correct. As we mentioned earlier, getting to significant volumes is difficult by picking it up from the ground.
That’s why we focus our main efforts on smart aggregation points.


But cleanups still serve an important purpose. First of all, nobody would have the crazy idea to criticize any city worker that is cleaning a park - no matter if in London, Berlin, New York, or Bangalore.
We all deserve clean recreational areas. 

Secondly, waste that aggregates on the beach is at immediate risk of being washed into the ocean. Changing tides are constantly flushing new plastic onshore, and picking up plastic that already sits on the beach. By collecting trash it is removed from this vicious cycle.

Thirdly, the areas close to shore are usually the most productive marine ecosystems. This is where the highest density of life exists. Plastic and other waste in direct vicinity to these coastal regions show great risks of harming marine life.

Fourth (we can go on about this forever), it sends a great signal. Beaches are still (at least in our eyes) the best place to socialize. Picking up waste there educates others, it raises questions from beach visitors and their children. It is a great opportunity to educate. And to lead by example.

Here is one of our recent beach clean-ups with our collection partner Tridi Oasis in Java:

Passive technologies in rivers

We are partnering with a few selected organizations that install barriers in rivers to catch plastic before it can enter the oceans. This is volume-wise very effective because the waste again aggregates at one specific point without too much human effort. 

Further, these barriers are a great visualization of how much plastic floats through the rivers. They raise awareness and provoke questions.


Do you collect plastic from the oceans at all?

Only very few volumes come directly from the ocean. This is usually a “by-catch” from local fishermen. There are organizations out there doing good work without the need for our funding. Our focus is to stop plastic before it can enter the environment.


While the effectiveness of dollars spent, on the volume of plastic recovered, can be questioned (and is often criticized) we tip our hat to these organizations. Without them, there would be much less attention on our beloved ecosystem and its health. Keep doing your work!

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