An Australian billionaire known for making his money through iron ore mining wants to change the plastics recycling industry, and he's pledging US$300 million to do just that.
Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest is one of Australia's richest people, with an estimated net worth of more than $7bn (€6.4bn) made through metals mining and livestock farming in Western Australia.
But it's his love for the ocean, and what he sees happening with plastics pollution, that had him at the United Nations in New York on 25 Sept to announce the initiative.
Forrest's Minderoo Foundation is pledging to underwrite the administration of a system to create chemical recycling facilities around the world. And he's chipping in seed money as well.
Forrest's idea involves levying a voluntary surcharge, ranging from an estimated 20 to 50%, on all virgin plastic produced. That money would then fund creation of depolymerisation units around the world that would take recycled plastics back to monomers to allow for reuse.
The extra charge would not be levied on recycled plastics, which would help make that material more economically attractive to end users.
"The only way you can make it economic is by placing a small premium on plastic from fossil fuel and no premium on recycled plastics. Then, instantly, plastic becomes an asset of value," Forrest said in an interview with Plastics News.
It could add a fraction of cent to each plastic item produced, but would add up to an estimated $20bn (€18.2bn) per year to fund creation of a chemical recycling infrastructure.
Forrest does not believe the problems facing the plastics industry, in terms of environmental impact, can be mitigated using mechanical recycling methods.
The problem is just too large, said the founder and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, a major supplier of iron ore to China.
"There's all sorts of recycling. The only recycling I'm talking about is depolymerisation and repolymerisation," where plastics can have "almost an infinite life," Forrest said.
"I'm not talking mechanical. Mechanical really only has a limited life. It doesn't provide the mass abundance that we need for the industry. We need hundreds of millions of tons of plastic each year. We can't get that out of mechanical recycling. But you can certainly get that out of chemical recycling," he said.
Growing up in Western Australia, near the water, Forrest said the ocean has always had a special place in his heart. He can remember water quality problems created when fishermen were allowed to clear reef. So, he added, it's not a surprise that he's taken a keen interest in the ocean plastics problem.
The billionaire, in his late 50s, is actually finishing up his doctorate in marine biology at the University of Western Australia.
"I don't think the buck stops with the resin producer. I think it stops with all of us," he said. "Everyone loves the luxury of plastic," Forrest said, and paying a small premium for recycling is not unreasonable.
"I don't want the resin producers to carry the can. I don't want them not to have a very good business. I want the business to change quickly, and they will only do that if it's good business sense," he said. "To get them to change, it's got to be good business. And to get them to change very quickly, it's got to be really good business. I understand that."
"It's not a tax or a levy. It's a managed contribution," Forrest said, that would be administered by the industry.
But the billionaire also said he realises getting such an idea off the ground requires funding. That's why he's pledging up to $1m (€910,000) a week for the first five years to administer the programme. Add another $40m (€36.5m) in seed money for the effort and that brings you to his pledge of up to $300m (€274m).
Forrest calls plastics a "really great industry," but he had his eyes opened to the problem of ocean debris when he started taking classes for his marine biology degree.
Forrest believes that properly funded chemical recycling efforts could easily surpass traditional mechanical recycling in a relatively short period of time. He does not believe the world has adequate mechanical recycling systems in place to handle the amount of used plastics currently being generated.
"You only have to kill the ocean once. You don't need to kill it 10 times. We actually need to cut off the source of the waste and make sure that plastics is a flourishing industry and allow the oceans to flourish as well. We can't choose one or the other. We need both," he said.
Creating value for all used plastics through chemical recycling would encourage collection of the material and change the landscape, literally, he believes. "I think you'd see plastics disappear off the streets in two or three years. Within five years, you would ask why didn't we do this earlier."