In her book #Futuregen – Lessons from a Small Country, the Welsh politican Jane Davidson argues that small countries can be useful test cases for innovative policy. Her own innovation was the world’s first legally binding commitment to future generations. Delivered in Wales first, other countries have since studied the legislation in the hope of doing something similar.
Timor-Leste has hoped to apply this same small country pioneer approach to plastics. It’s an important issue in the country, where a population of 1.3 million people generates 50-70 tonnes of plastic waste every day. As is the case in many lower income countries, plastic use has run ahead of waste processing infrastructure, and 80% of that plastic ends up in the natural environment.
This affects marine biodiversity, as well as human health and wellbeing from the dumping or burning of plastic. There are long term consequences too, as polluted beaches undermine efforts to build a tourist industry.
In 2019, an innovative partnership was formed to solve the plastic problem. It combined cutting edge technology with a not-for-profit grassroots agency that would pay people to collect and bring in plastic. The plastic would be fed into a state-of-the-art Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor, which can turn any mixed plastics into synthetic fuels, waxes and chemicals. These would be sold on to industry as raw materials, and the sale of these plastic-derived products would fund the community plastic collection.
In theory, the plant would be big enough to process all the plastic in the country, and to do it in a revenue-neutral, circular economy model. In a slightly clunky appropriation of carbon neutrality, the press release for the partnership claimed that Timor-Leste would then be the world’s first ‘plastic neutral’ country.
It’s an intriguing idea – essentially a classic technofix, but strapped on to more informal waste collection practices already in operation. By paying schools and community groups to bring in plastics, the long term goal would be not just to process all incoming plastic, but also to clean up existing pollution and restore degraded land. Alongside measures to reduce plastic use, such as a plastic bag ban, the country could be a global leader in overcoming the scourge of waste plastic.
It hasn’t happened yet though. The not-for-profit agency was due to launch in 2020, and has not materialised – a casualty of the pandemic, says one of the partners I contacted. The key technology is still in development, with the first commercial reactor being built in the North of England (see their video for how it works). Despite the memorandum of understanding they have signed to secure the tech, Timor-Leste may have to wait a while. There’s still a question mark over the idea that Timor-Leste might be plastic neutral anytime soon. But I like the idea, and I hope it will still happen.