There is no planet B. The plastic, from pollutant to resource

17 April 2019

Plastic is the third most widespread material produced on Earth by man. In the last 50 years, as reported by the WWF, “its world production has increased from 15 million in 1964 to over 310 million today, of which only 9% is recycled. Thus, every year, at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans and, to date, it is estimated that more than 150 million tons of it have been accumulated on the seabed. Only in Europe, about 700 kilos of plastic per second end up in the sea and, in Italian seas, a square kilometer contains up to 10 kilograms on the surface”. Decades, in some cases entire centuries spent in the sea, with an unprecedented impact on the ecosystem. Pollution from plastic materials presents three distinct but closely related problems: the overproduction of disposable packaging, the low percentage of recycling and the dispersion of plastic waste in the environment. As much as 50% of the plastic produced lives less than 12 months, while 20% of it is dispersed in the environment and 40% ends up in landfills. The average life of the trillion bags produced each year is less than 30 minutes and plastic production consumes as much as 14% of the planet’s oil resources. At the same time, a plastic bottle takes about 450 years to degrade, a glass 50 and a bag between 10 and 20. By oxidizing, the plastic is also transformed into CO2, thus contributing to global warming, while the microplastics enter the marine food chain and, consequently, in that of man.

The solution to the problem must certainly not be sought in a return to traditional materials, since the replacement of all the plastic used today would lead to an even greater environmental impact. Just think, for example, of the contribution of plastic in lightening the weight of aircraft or road transport, thus allowing for lower fuel consumption. “The demonization of plastic is a senseless attitude, we cannot do without it. What we can do is change our behavior and the way we produce it, to recycle and keep it in use as much as possible,” told Stefano Venier, CEO of Hera Group, to the BBS Community during the Innovation Talks at Villa Guastavillani. While steel, glass, and 94% of paper can be perfectly regenerated, the plastic degrades and loses its properties with each cycle. “The objective is to study, through innovation, chemical processes that can reconstruct the initial building blocks and make the material usable again,” explained Hera’s CEO.

And it is precisely from technological innovation, through the work of startups and green companies that bet on sustainability, that the most interesting alternatives to chemical polymers arrive, together with effective solutions to clean up our marine heritage. The Italian excellence of the sector is the startup Felfil, which proposes a method of home recycling for plastic from which to obtain filaments for 3D printing. Sea Defense is also an Italian startup, born from the commitment of two engineers, Fabio Dalmonte and Mauro Nardocci, who intercept waste in water courses with a system of floating steel and recycled plastic barriers, before they are dispersed into the sea. The University of Bologna is at the forefront of numerous projects that aim to develop innovative plastic materials from an organic and completely biodegradable base. One of these is B-Plas Demo, funded by the European Union on Climate KIC funds, with the aim of creating an industrial-scale plant for the production of bioplastics, starting from industrial organic waste (sludge and wastewater) and citizens (Forsu). It was instead born from an idea of Boyan Slat, a Dutch inventor of only 18 years, the non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup, which uses the sea currents to clean up the seabed and employs more than 80 among engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modellers every day.

Even the explorer and activist Alex Bellini, who met the BBS Global MBA students at Villa Guastavillani, reiterated the need to intervene as soon as possible, because “there is no planet B”. To promote a new sense of respect for our planet, Bellini embarked on the “10 Rivers 1 Ocean” project, in which he will navigate the 10 most polluted rivers in the world that contribute largely to the creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a non-continent made of plastic, which extends for a million and a half square kilometers. “The speed with which we put plastic in the oceans will cause it to weigh more than all the animals that populate them by 2050,” Bellini said. The contamination of the ocean concerns us more closely than we think, since only in the North Pacific more than 9% of the catch presents small pieces of plastic in the stomach. Here the fish, in fact, ingest between 12,000 and 24,000 tons of plastic.

In this scenario, the theme of sustainability and green innovation is becoming increasingly popular in the awareness of public opinion, with the recent mobilizations of students inspired by Greta Thunberg, and in the work of the institutions, with interventions carried out by governments and by non-profit organizations (a few days ago an EU directive banned disposable plastics starting from January 1, 2021).

The contribution of the private sector is also essential, since more and more managers and entrepreneurs recognize the urgency of an intervention to safeguard the environment, directing their activities towards new business models. “The change in the regulatory scenario, the growing – indispensable – sensitivity on the part of consumers to green features of products and services, and attention to the depletion of natural resources, pushes more and more entrepreneurs to approach sustainability issues and embrace the principles of the circular economy in order to create a shared value “, says Matteo Mura, Scientific Director of the Global MBA Green Energy and Sustainable Businesses of Bologna Business School.

This is a topic that must be addressed with a renewed vision of the future and with the managerial skills needed to intercept and exploit innovation in the field of sustainability. The BBS Global MBA in Green Energy and Sustainable Businesses is therefore addressed to young managers who see in the challenges of climate change the principle on which to build the future of companies. In particular, the opportunities made possible by new technologies and digitization represent today the main levers that can and must be wisely implemented in companies by qualified managers, to transform the challenge of sustainability into a project.


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