Over the past half a century, perhaps no other class of human-made materials has defined humanity more than plastics. Taking a myriad of useful forms, these materials have essentially become an indispensable part of our lives and fairly representative of our modern society. However, plastics are a double-edged sword, and careless use and disposal of them has created the immense potential for environmental harm.

Plastics, which are non-biodegradable bi-products of the petroleum industry, pose risks both at the manufacturing level and during their disposal. The harmful chemicals used to convert petroleum into usable plastic contaminate local water sources and when these are disposed into the ocean, or worse, burned, cause immeasurable damage to our environment. For instance, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastics are disposed of into the oceans every year. These plastics and microplastics become a part of our ecosystem when they are consumed by marine wildlife, and eventually biomagnify up the food chain back to humans. Clearly, plastic pollution is a serious issue and warrants our urgent and utmost attention. However, in order to solve this massive problem, we not only need bright and dedicated minds, but we also need to use the technology available to its fullest potential.

Track and control the value chain from waste plants to actual recycled products

Enter Lonely Whale – an organization offering an incubation program for those daring to build companies that solve the problem of plastics in our ocean. 

The complex economics of the global plastic trade is underlined by the same simple economic principle that governs everything else around us – supply and demand. We have the capacity to recycle a large amount of the plastic that enters our oceans every year, but in order to recycle more, it is essential that demand for recycled plastic increases further. The unfortunate reality is that today, there are little-to-no incentives for companies to purchase recycled plastics and put them to use elsewhere. This is where the need for advocacy and technology comes into play. A global infrastructure that focuses on transparency of where plastic is produced, used, and discarded is necessary. This level of traceability would aid the identification of the companies that are polluting the most, thereby allowing upcycled plastic products to find a niche for themselves. 

At Schoolab’s “Deplastify the Planet”(a semester-long class taught at UC Berkeley) Lonely Whale teamed up with four students – Gurjot Kohli, Karina Gulati, Raghav Singh and Jordan Coffey – to solve the challenge of traceability in our global plastic supply chain and create an incentive system for companies to use recycled and upcycled plastics. 

The team’s profound idea will use blockchain technology to create tamper-proof ledgers which will trace the lifecycle of ocean-bound plastics – starting from waste pickers all the way through to recycling centers where it is converted to plastic pellets and finally sold to companies. 

Since blockchain allows for the secure distribution and public sharing of transactional data, it serves as the perfect foundational technology for their project. In their iteration, blockchain would allow for a fair and growing infrastructure for trade between manufacturers, waste pickers, and recycling units. 

Furthermore, they plan to implement a plastic credit system that incentivizes companies to invest in the recycled plastic market and motivate them to spend the same dollar amount on recycled plastic as they do on used plastic to become ‘plastic neutral’. This incentive system would also allow for waste-pickers to accumulate points by collecting and depositing plastic which would be redeemed in fiat money. 

Once they are able to integrate blockchain with their incentive system, and partner with global companies and local waste-pickers, they will be able to create something absolutely unique – a decentralized marketplace where companies would be able to buy and sell recycled plastic and receive plastic credits which would be used to make them truly “plastic neutral”.