There’s a holiday atmosphere in San Antonio de Belén in Costa Rica: this anonymous, mountain hamlet has just won a place in the Guinness Book of Records. How? Thanks to the commitment and collaboration of everyone in the country. The village was the central point for an initiative which saw 30 tonnes of plastic bottles deposited by Costa Ricans for recycling, between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., just 8 hours. The previous record, which was established in India, registered ‘only’ 23 tonnes. The accumulated material was weighed with special electronic scales and then sent off in its entirety for recycling.
The world record, certified by officials from Guinness World Records, was made possible by the work of volunteers, schools, public and private offices. The operation was coordinated by Ecolones, an organisation that has created a virtual ecocoin to reward the correct sorting of waste and recycling. “We did it!” is the claim on its website, while the banner created for the occasion read: “Thank you Costa Rica" from our planet too.
Involving communities: a contribution to the circular economy
A different setting, a different world record: in the Japanese city of Kamikatsu, waste is not sorted into just organic, glass and plastic, but into 45 categories. There are nine different containers just for paper (e.g., newspapers, magazines, publicity flyers and cardboard), five for metal and six for plastic. There’s even a special container for depositing razors, another for pens and so on. The city’s inhabitants are so committed that not only do they take part enthusiastically, they also strive to constantly improve: a success story for the circular economy.
The Costa Rican endeavour and the zeal of the Japanese show that tangible results are achieved when communities are involved and people are motivated. Especially when it comes to a problem like waste, one of the most urgent environmental issues on a global level.
This is the direction taken by numerous creative initiatives that focus on the sorting of waste. In Colombia, special automatic dispensers in shopping malls and public offices work “back to front”: when fed with empty plastic bottles, in exchange they provide food coupons, cinema tickets and other rewards, using a points system. In Indonesia, people who recycle even have an option to access health insurance, through Garbage Clinical Insurance, which helps make up for the absence of a universal healthcare system.
Similar projects have been launched by Ampla and Coelce, two Enel Group subsidiaries: including discounted electricity bills in exchange for waste sorting and a competition in which 15 teams were challenged to gather and deliver the largest amount of waste. Each member of the winning team won a tablet and was able to nominate a charity that could benefit from a discounted utility bill.
Reuse: art & entertainment
Creativity is also king in the reuse of plastic. A simple but efficient idea comes from Uganda, where the environmentalist Ruganzu Bruno built an amusement park for children using only plastic waste. In Paris, as well as in several Italian municipalities (including Trento, Empoli and Aversa), bottles, screw tops and tyres have been used to create decorations for new year celebrations.
Waste plastic can also be used as a prime material for works of art. This was the case with installations like Over Flow, by the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata, which exhibited in Lisbon, and Help! by the Italian artist Maria Cristina Finucci, whose display in the Roman Forum was illuminated at night by Enel. For the project Waste Land, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz upcycled refuse collected from one of the world’s largest landfill sites, Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. In all of these cases the message is clear: decrying pollution and encouraging reuse.
With the same intention, the French photographer Antoine Repessé has made plastic waste the central theme of his work, while two British synchronised swimming champions, Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe, set one of their exhibitions in a pool filled with floating waste.
The Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Centre) in Naples is forging ahead with experiments that combine local tradition with technological innovation: the waste recovered is transformed into artisanal objects with the use of 3D printers.
New tourist attractions
Despite the best efforts, it is not possible to recycle 100% of all waste, not even in Kamikatsu. So there is still a need for thermal incinerators or rubbish landfills. However, imagination helps in this case too. In another Japanese city, Osaka, an incinerator is a work of art, a monument that has become a tourist attraction. Meanwhile in Copenhagen, the brand new incinerator Copenhill (in the heart of the city) is not only technologically advanced and ecosustainable, it also has a climbing wall and a roof-top ski run: important features in a country that sees a lot of snowfall but is completely flat.
The problem of waste is particularly acute in an efficient but small scale, city-state like Singapore. Most of the waste here is burnt and the rest is sent off to the only landfill, in Semakau. This offshore plant has been transformed into a jewel of sustainability: created with innovative technology to sort all waste, it is also a hotspot for biodiversity and a tourist destination full of mangrove trees, coral, marine animals and birds.
Technology and biological solutions
Creativity is also at work in the sciences. One of the most promising ideas is that of bioplastics: a sector being developed by innovative companies like the Italian Novamont (which has signed a collaboration contract with the Enel Group and the Alliance for Circular Economy launched by Enel and Intesa Sanpaolo). Novamont has created the first plant in the world dedicated to the production of Bio-Butanediol and produces a range of bioplasticproducts that are completely biodegradable. Meanwhile, the German multinational, BASF, has developed a new chemical procedure to recycle types of plastic that were unrecyclable until now.
There is also news of an unexpected ally, the discovery in Japan of a bacteria, Ideonella Sakaiensis, which can digest plastic. Thanks to two special enzymes, it can break down and assimilate PET, one of the materials most commonly found in plastic containers: a capacity that is shared with only a handful of mushroom species, including Zalerion Maritimum, as a group of Portuguese researchers has discovered. It is still early days for the transformation of mushrooms and bacteria into a production chain able to digest all the plastic in the world. However, it would appear that the road to the waste problem solution also lies in biology.
Read more here about why Enel has embraced the circular economy.