A sustainable plastic economy is circular
By Justin Wood, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Alliance to End Plastic Waste
COVID-19 has been both a challenge and opportunity in tackling sustainability. On the one hand, experts agree that the pandemic has further set back achieving some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. On the other, it has also triggered some deep soul-searching as global lockdowns exposed gaps in the long-term sustainability and resilience of our supply chains.
It has forced us to rethink the status quo, and accelerated the global transition towards a circular economy in multiple sectors. This same sense of urgency has spilled over to plastic waste management, and the need for transformation across the value chain.
That need is just as apparent in the Middle East as it is elsewhere. The region generates approximately 150 million tons of gross urban waste annually, and yet most is still going to landfill and incineration, or is leaking into the environment – very little is recycled. Much of the region’s plastic waste ends up as marine pollution, with studies showing that the volume of such material entering the Gulf is forecast to rise from 284,000 tons in 2016 to 366,000 tons in 2030, unless action is taken. On the land, research suggests that 1% of all camel deaths in the GCC come from eating plastic waste. There is clearly room to grow the recycling industry by addressing constraints of limited infrastructure and public policy, low public awareness, and narrow margins in the waste processing sector that require economic mechanisms such as EPR to make them more attractive.
While the primary focus for sustainability in the Middle East has been to facilitate the energy transition towards a low-carbon economy, there is a growing urgency to address other aspects of sustainable development, especially plastic waste pollution and waste management.
The region has shown strong commitment towards sustainable waste management to bend the curve. Several Middle Eastern economies, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have begun implementing legislative frameworks, source segregation, recycling, or waste-to-energy systems, as well as undertaken ambitious solid waste management projects. Private sector participation, together with significant investment into new technologies, infrastructure development and public education, are just some of the myriad initiatives being rolled out.
More broadly, the recently concluded fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya has accelerated the push for plastics circularity, driven by the strong agreement that plastic waste does not belong in the environment. More than 170 countries agreed to begin negotiations on a legally-binding instrument for governments, companies, and communities to work together to end plastic waste pollution. In the next two years, the newly-agreed Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has the mammoth task of developing the global roadmap under this proposed agreement to end plastic waste in the environment.
Finding alignment on next steps is no easy feat. Yet our experience has shown that collective action is possible.
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is a global non-profit organization founded in 2019. We convene engaged businesses from across the entire plastics value chain—including resin producers, converters, brands, waste managers and recyclers—that want to be part of the solution. Together, we work with the public sector, civil society, and communities to address the challenge of plastic waste.
Our focus is implementing projects and investing in innovative solutions to develop or enhance waste management systems. From our perspective, the urgency of action is this: some three billion people across the globe still do not have access to adequate waste management services. Where these systems do exist, there continue to be gaps that hinder collection and processing and thereby hold back recycling.
Plastic waste leakage will continue unless we find commercially viable solutions to develop infrastructure to allow better collection, sorting, processing, and recycling. Therefore, our aspiration is to find waste management solutions for all mismanaged plastic waste.
Together with our global network of over 90 member companies and strategic partners, we are working to develop, de-risk and scale commercially viable models that will bring better waste management, especially to underserved areas.
This starts from simple collection to organized waste management systems that include advanced recovery and recycling technologies. The highest level incorporates a marketplace for recycled plastics—to form a closed loop, where there is a complete avoidance of plastic waste generation.
Over the past three years, we have developed a portfolio of more than 35 projects across 29 countries. Each project tests technologies or solutions that can help to advance plastics circularity. While these are still in the early stages of implementation, they have already produced rich learnings and applications.
We have gained an appreciation of the uniqueness of local waste management needs, as well as insights on the enabling conditions necessary to divert waste from the environment. A key observation is that the demand is no longer just for blue or green solutions. While these remain essential, we believe that governments, companies, and people are looking to build sustainable, circular economies that include environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics.
In the case of plastic waste, this requires a systemic view of supply chains, product design, and recyclability. We believe this can be achieved by addressing six priority areas, or gaps, that stand in the way of circularity—namely quality, quantity, affordability, design, data, and alignment.
They serve as guides to help policymakers, investors, companies, consumers, and the community adopt solutions to create the most positive impact.
Intelligent waste sorting using digital watermarks can enable faster, more accurate plastic waste segregation, with the potential to revolutionise sorting and recycling processes. The European Brands Association, AIM, and Alliance to End Plastic Waste have partnered to conduct semi-industrial trials for the technology in Denmark. Photo credit: Alliance to End Plastics Waste
Solutions being tested include intelligent waste sorting under the Digital Watermarks Initiative, HolyGrail 2.0. The project is a joint collaboration with the European Brands Association, AIM, with the ambition to develop and scale precision identification and sorting of plastic waste. Semi-industrial trials have been completed with 125,000 pieces of packaging comprising bottles, flexibles and pots representing about 260 stock keeping units (SKUs).
Digital watermarks are imperceptible codes, each the size of a postage stamp that cover the surface of consumer goods packaging and carry information such as material type and usage. These codes are scanned at recycling facilities and machine sorted for better accuracy, and higher-quality recyclates downstream. Such products are already making their way to store shelves in Europe and have the potential to help revolutionize the sorting and recycling of plastic waste.
For example, Procter & Gamble, a founding member of the Alliance, is designing for circularity starting with its Lenor brand. The range of fabric enhancers is moving away from opaque bottles, that are generally more difficult to recycle, to shrink-sleeved transparent ones with digital watermarks. The shrink-sleeved labels are designed for easy removal and use non-bleeding ink to reduce the risk of contamination during the recycling process. To help customers using the new bottles for the first time, video tutorials are also available on YouTube.
A raft of new technologies and solutions are needed to facilitate a circular economy for plastics from integrated infrastructure to data mining, from intelligent waste sorting to chemical recycling. Getting these solutions to market quickly and at scale will require dedicated financing.
This is why we are looking beyond traditional funding mechanisms to include private equity, venture capital and other forms of private sector funding, as well as large scale blended finance from development finance institutions to drive our work and look forward to applying these to the implementation of the proposed global agreement. We believe they will be critical in driving the widespread adoption of solutions to help make recycled material commercially viable.
The transition towards a circular economy for plastics is necessary. We invite like-minded partners to collaborate to offer technical assistance, capacity building, knowledge transfer and open innovation to facilitate the development of solutions and new operating models towards achieving circularity and ending plastic waste in the environment.