Taking action on plastic waste
Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste, explains how the pandemic drove awareness of the plastic waste challenge, and what projects and initiatives are in place to advance sustainability globally
Tell us more about the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Why was it founded, and what purpose and objectives does it serve?
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste was founded by a group of global leading companies across the plastics value chain with the mission to end plastic waste in the environment. Our focus is to develop, deploy and derisk scalable solutions to enable a circular economy for plastics and ultimately, end plastic waste in the environment. We are convinced that collaborative action is key, and we need to move from commitment to action.
As a relatively newly launched organization, how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your plans and your strategy?
We remain focused on our mission to scale solutions across the strategic pillars of infrastructure, innovation, education and clean-up, while ensuring the safety of our employees and partners on the ground.
COVID-19 has been both a challenge and an opportunity for the Alliance. While we have experienced selected project delays and one project closure, the pandemic has also created a heightened awareness of the plastic waste issue across all levels of society and in all regions. This in turn has helped to drive the need for solutions and action in this space. Overall, we are continuing at pace with over 30 projects committed to, including more than 20 already in implementation phase.
How serious is the plastic waste challenge globally today? What does it take to keep on moving towards action and addressing the challenges at stake?
We believe that mismanaged plastic waste is a critical yet solvable issue. That is why the Alliance exists and why our members have joined. We want to be a part of creating solutions for future generations. The numbers speak volumes – globally, only 15% of plastic waste is recycled; an estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year and plastic waste leakage into the ocean could triple by 2040 if nothing is done. Up to USD 120 billion is lost yearly through mismanaged plastic waste.
The scale of the problem means that no one can tackle it alone – which is why our mission to rally collective action to enable a circular economy across the plastics value chain has never been more crucial. The Alliance equates to action. Since 2019, we have grown our membership to nearly 60 industry leaders representing producers, retailers, waste management and recyclers as well as enablers. And we are inviting many more to join.
The ability to bring the value chain together across continents to create solutions for sustainable development, as well as address economic and resource issues around plastic waste, is a unique feature of the Alliance.
Products made of plastic have played a key role in providing protection to frontline workers and members of the public during the pandemic. At the same time, higher volumes of plastics used have resulted in creating more plastic waste. How has this issue influenced the Alliance and has it added any urgency to provide effective solutions to plastic waste?
The pressing need to address plastic waste in the environment pre-dates the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has helped to increase awareness around the challenge and bring it to the forefront of the sustainability agenda. This further elevates the importance of the work we do and reinforces our commitment to the mission of ending plastic waste in the environment.
As the circular economy is gaining traction in regions around the world, how important is this momentum for the plastic industry and managing plastic waste?
Do you see the industry fully transitioning into a circular approach to plastics, and is the circular economy the silver bullet that the world needs to eliminate plastic waste?
Ending plastic waste is a complex challenge and no one organization can tackle it alone. There is no silver bullet. However, as the pandemic has shown – global cooperation towards addressing pressing issues, is wholly possible. To achieve the transformational change needed, there must be practical alignment and collaboration among a diverse spectrum of stakeholders. The Alliance has identified six gaps in the plastic waste circular economy that need to be addressed, namely – quality, quantity, affordability, design, data, and alignment gaps. We believe that progress is being made.
For example, we are addressing the quantity gap with Project STOP in Jembrana, Bali, Indonesia where we have set up an integrated waste management system for over 160,000
residents. In addition to being a pilot for future larger scale projects in the region, it also introduces new concepts in waste management financing. This project is designed to be economically self-sufficient, where the system can be fully operated by the local government and communities. This includes hiring locals at living wages, and under responsible working conditions, to manage and staff the new waste management system.
Outside of Project STOP, we are developing a number of large-scale city-level projects that will address the basics of collection, sortation and plastic waste aggregation for recycling. We partner with other international agencies, such as UN Habitat’s Waste Wise Cities Programme and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – to develop city-wide strategies that will lead to successive projects founded in a clear masterplan for developing integrated waste management.
What areas in plastic waste management are requiring the most investment and how is this being addressed by your members?
Research shows that 3 billion people in the world do not have access to proper waste management services. The lack of proper systems in many communities has resulted in plastic waste not being collected properly nor efficiently, nor being contained appropriately, allowing it to leak in the environment.
In many developing communities, infrastructure development has lagged population and economic growth. Given the cost of infrastructure development, about 60% of the Alliance’s funding will be directed towards improving infrastructure, especially in developing nations.
Several GPCA member companies are part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. What role can regional producers play in global and regional efforts to eliminate plastic waste?
To ensure that global thinking is complemented by local action, we are in the process of establishing Regional Task Groups including one in the Middle East, to guide our strategy at the regional level.
Member companies play a critical role in these task groups. They contribute insights and expertise that help to chart the course towards achieving a circular economy in plastics. In line with the Alliance’s focus on being a solutions provider, member companies also give valuable guidance in helping to identify project ideas, selection and management to develop an impactful portfolio of work in the Middle East. We invite more companies in the region to join the Alliance, and be part of the process to create solutions to end plastic waste.
How important is the role of technological innovation and cooperation in moving towards a world where plastic never becomes waste?
Innovation is a one of four strategic focus areas that guides our work. With that in mind, we are partnering with the research and scientific community as well as entrepreneurs to develop a pipeline of new ideas and technologies. We also leverage our network of industry leaders to help fast track budding solutions to commercialization.
A good example is our End Plastic Waste Innovation Platform in partnership with Plug and Play, which just launched our 6th innovation hub in Johannesburg. The program has reviewed over 2,000 start-up applications to date, of which more than 250 were shortlisted. Over 75 commercial pilots are already underway through the program.