Most recycling programs aren’t that good at keeping plastic out of the trash. In the U.S., recycling rates hover around a dismal 9%. But a new experiment is taking a different approach: A local lab collects plastic and turns it into useful objects for the neighborhood, like benches for local parks.
The project, called WASTED, is based in Amsterdam–where residents do a better job than Americans of recycling, but about half of plastic waste still reaches landfills.
“Despite increasing environmental awareness, plastic waste continues to scatter and pollute our towns and planet,” says Mehdi Comeau from the Cities Foundation, the group behind the pilot project. “In addition, plastic products are usually produced in Asia, spurring undue transport costs. WASTED is designed to shrink this global material cycle down to the neighborhood level.”
In the new program, neighbors sign up for a startup kit with QR-coded trash bags and fill them up with plastic. Once a week, volunteers swing by on cargo bikes to pick up the bags. The system tracks how much each person is recycling, and rewards them with discounts at neighborhood stores. Current rewards include free coffee, bike repair, and an extra scoop of ice cream at a local shop.
The plastic ends up at the local lab, where designers built a machine to transform scraps into small, modular building blocks. The main ingredient is plastic bags, one of the most common plastic items to be trashed. Unlike the typical recycling process, where you put something in a bin and forget about it, the lab lets anyone learn how to create the blocks.
“People can actually join us in the laboratory to learn first-hand how plastic waste can be reprocessed and reused,” Comeau says. The organization also hosts classes in schools on “Plastic Addiction” and “Plastic Archaeology” and invites students to learn how to make the blocks.
The reusable blocks will be used to build things like park benches, temporary stages for music festivals, and planters, all a reminder of how much plastic waste the neighborhood is generating.
“I think that when people see their own plastic and that of their community be locally recycled and upcycled into new blocks, people become more aware of their plastic consumption and disposal,” says Comeau. “The block serves as an immediate recognition of what plastic becomes, and people can see for themselves the process of turning from trash to something new in workshops.”
They’re hoping that the project helps people start to consume a little less plastic, and even more, that consumers start to learn which types of plastic are most easily recycled. “We recognize that plastic is an inescapable reality in today’s world,” he says. “More than seeking to dramatically reduce people’s plastic consumption, we wish to make them more aware of the plastic they consume– based on what happens with it afterward.”
The pilot phase will end this summer–with Amsterdam’s first plastic festival, WASTED Plastic Night–and then the group will work on turning the project into something more permanent for the community.
For anyone who wants to try creating a similar program in their own neighborhood, the group has an open source kit for building your own lab.