This week, I’d like to shine my spotlight on two separate (for now) subjects. Firstly, the enormous quantity of plastic being thrown out and accumulated on the earth. Secondly, EcoDomum, a start-up in Mexico that is quite effectively taking aim at 3 specific societal targets: plastic waste accumulation, homelessness, and poverty.
A study from the World Economic Forum published this month titled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics” found that by the year 2050, pound for pound, plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans. Reported on by The Washington Post, the study described how worldwide use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years. This means that by 2050, we’ll be making more than three times as much plastic stuff as we did in 2014.
The problem with humanity’s use of plastic is that we are not nearly as efficient at recycling and reusing plastic products as we are simply using and throwing them out. This plastic accumulates in the oceans and takes the form of islands of garbage, or garbage patches. It enters the digestive systems of marine life, and wraps itself around birds’ necks and legs. In the middle of the North Pacific Gyre, there is a trash-filled expanse of ocean approximately the size of Texas. This is horrible and terrifying on a human scale, but at a microscopic scale it’s even worse – the animals that come into or live in this area of the ocean constantly ingest pieces of plastic and plastic particles. They assume a natural position in the oceanic food chain, being eaten by their predators, who are then eaten by their own predators, and so on and so forth until we humans find ourselves at a fancy restaurant sitting down to a plate of fish fed by our own plastic waste, and containing all of the associated hazardous chemical compounds.
The most promising solution thus far comes in the form of The Ocean Cleanup, an organisation founded in 2013 by Dutchman (and then only 19 years old) Boyan Slat. Set for launch in 2020, they propose setting up passive, lighter-than-water barriers attached to the ocean floor that would simply collect the plastic trash and other waste that floats by, directing it towards a central platform that would collect the waste, and prepare it for recycling.
I don’t know if they have a set plan for what happens once they have the plastic collected and sorted, but I would like to propose that they send it all to Mexico, and leave it in the capable hands of EcoDomum (website in Spanish). Originally reported on by Unreasonable, and picked up by Mic, theirs is a story that merits being told again, and spread as widely as possible. Carlos Daniel González, the founder of EcoDomum, decided that he needed to do something to address the rapid accumulation of plastic waste in Mexico – which ranks as the 12th largest plastics consumer in the world, consuming over 5 million tons of plastic annually – while also addressing the high level of extreme poverty in his home state, where 64% of the population is living in poverty.
His idea is simple – EcoDomum collects all kinds of plastic waste, then separates the articles to identify plastic that melts without emitting toxic fumes. This plastic is then sent through a machine that chops it into little pebble-sized pieces, before being put into an oven for 30 minutes – the time it takes for all the plastic to fully melt. The liquid is then sent into a hydraulic press, that compresses and moulds the plastic into panels 8 feet long, four feet wide, and about one inch thick. These panels (which look like plastic funfetti) are used to build houses containing 2 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom for a total cost of about USD 280. The construction of a full house includes the use of 80 panels, and with González’s production currently running at 120 panels per day, that means that within one week of operation, EcoDomum has already processed 15 tons of recycled plastic, enough to build 7 and a half houses.
For now, the startup is mainly selling their panels by mass order to local governments, who then take care of the construction of subsidised housing. To date, they have constructed five hundred 135 square foot rooms for the city of Huauchinango, the city of Chiconcuhutla contracted the company to build 150 houses of 460 square feet each, and they are currently working on a contract from the city of Pahuatlán for another 150 homes.
As if this two-birds-with-one-stone operation wasn’t insightful enough, González took his dedication to the fight against poverty one step further. Trash collectors in Mexico are generally paid abysmally, and yet they are working with EcoDomum’s most important resource every day. The startup therefore works in partnership with local trash collection companies, paying them so that they pay their employees a higher wage, ensuring a constant stream of raw material to EcoDomum’s processing stations.
The most beautiful aspect of this project is, for me, the potential for scalability. The technology is not incredibly rare or complicated, and extreme poverty and waste accumulation are problems that communities face all over the world today. If we could scale EcoDomum globally, and let them process the plastic waste collected by The Ocean Cleanup, we would have a pretty stellar circle of life for plastic products.
This is obviously not a silver bullet solution to all the complexities that come with a species that creates more waste than it knows what to do with, nor will it be a panacea to the global and complicated reality of extreme poverty.
However, it would be an excellent step in the right direction.