Simple Math Problem: What does 8 Million Tons of Plastic mean? In $$ Figure

You’ve heard the 8 Million Tons of plastics entering our ocean every year. That’s the same as the 1 truck (5 ton)of plastic dumped into the Ocean every minute statistic.

We have so many numbers. But what does 8 Million Tons mean to you? Or 1 garbage truck full every minute? What does that look like at the end of a day or a week?

People have tried to show this number with whales, shopping carts, and all kinds of creative ways. Did you know that is equivalent to 2 Empire State Buildings full of plastic every month going into the ocean? And still, we don’t really have a change. It’s too abstract a number to make sense to any of us. When humans cannot relate to something we usually find it easier to ignore it.

What if we talked about this in monetary terms. Using very simple math and straightforward assumptions to make this make sense. 8 Million tons of all kinds of plastics.

For simplicity — let’s say that all of them are just plastic bottles. (They are not, the ocean is filled with nets, crates, toys, shoes, tires, etc. all if recovered properly yield a higher value than plastic in a plastic water bottle.)

We know that plastic bottles are worth about 5 cents apiece in NYC thanks to the bottle bill — post-consumer — for those who collect them. To make it even simpler and avoid “non bottle-bill” arguments — let us say that this value is just 1 cent. Plastic bottles at the end of the day can be returned for at least 1 cent, to many grocery stores or take back programs, because they have value. They can be turned into raw plastic if they are clean, new products can be made out of them, and that in turn can be sold to make more money.

Garbage = $$$

David Katz and Tom Szaky have built futuristic businesses doing just that — Plastic Bank and TerraCycle respectively.

So just for simplicity let’s say the value is 1 cent per bottle.

Every minute 1 garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into the ocean.

Lets do some straightforward and linear math. Each truck can hold over a ton of plastic — about 50,000 bottles make-up a ton (in weight). The total weight capacity of a garbage truck is usually 5 tons, however, lets use 1 ton to reflect the inefficiencies of today’s waste management processes.

According to the bottle bill — we can say, roughly, that every garbage truck holds about $500 worth of plastic bottles — 50,000 non-compressed water bottles fit into a garbage truck that’s ~ 1 metric ton. Even though the trucks have a capacity to carry 5 tons — that’s another story about compressed and non-compressed bottles — a tribute to the efficiency of collection systems. But even with just a 1 ton load: the total for that is:

Look once more at the numbers above. I’m not saying that this is the dollar value that we are actually losing into the Ocean every year, this is at least that amount.

** This is not the TOTAL cost of inefficient waste management systems at all that number is in the tens of billions — it doesn’t include the plastics that have not been recycled (91% of ALL plastics ever made have been wasted).

To be fair — according to the plastic exchange (industry) — a ton of recycled PET plastic is worth about $160 in today’s market (updated Feb 2021). This particular value is excluding bottle bills, without holding anybody responsible for the production or disposal, without subsidy, just a bale of post-consumer recycled PET from a MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) — the lowest value plastic product out there. However, they are not loose bottles, they are bales — each garbage truck has a capacity of 5 tons, from a balable plastics stand-point. 3 tons would be equal to the $500 in our calculations above, still a realistic scenario.

Why are these numbers important to have in our minds? To see both the damage we’re doing to the planet and the opportunity we’re throwing out. These numbers are not exact by any means. This is just very loose and linear math. It is true that most plastics in the ocean don’t have the quality to recycle any more — that’s up to us to capture them BEFORE they lose their quality. It’s also true that all plastics in the ocean, or landfills, are not made of the same grade — yes, and bottles are one of the least valuable plastics — it’s up to US to make plastics that don’t lose value on manufacturing’s conveyor belts. It is also up to us to capture what’s already out there. The world is too deep in plastics now to just look forward. We need to also look at what’s here.

The world is too deep in plastics now to just look forward. We need to also look at what’s here.

In a truly “closed” system at the end of it’s useful lifecycle (i.e instead of throwing into the ocean or pulling it out of the ocean) — the plastics can be used in low emission waste-to-energy plants to create energy. There is SOME use that we can give the material. With progress in various available technologies, we can also avoid much of the cons — carbon emissions, waste, landfills etc.

When we actually recycle — in the true sense of the word, we can recover a good portion of this. Not saying we know what the amount is, the point is to change our mindsets and instead of looking at the issue at hand as “just” saving the whales, birds, ocean, or environment, also include the economic impact. There is a true loss of economic value in both resource and labor, and just playing this down as a “treehugger’s mission” is harming the economy.

The opportunity in this space is practically infinite. Beyond the pictures of “doom” there are opportunities that are awaiting us to discover and solve this problem at every level, across various industries — including finance, banking, and corporate. #wereallinthistogether

Ocean Actionist. Circular Economy Consultant. Reuse and Plastic recycling SME. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Underwater Photographer. NYC.

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