The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), armed with an initial funding commitment of $1bn, has the potential to be a game changer for the polymers industry.
No longer is it enough to educate the public on how plastic is fantastic – keeping food safe and fresh, lightweighting vehicles for fuel economy, and providing value and convenience for the masses. The industry finally recognises it’s time to act now to address the immediate problem of plastic waste in the environment and particularly in our oceans.
Longer term, a big part of the solution will be recycling technology – improving the mechanical recycling we have today, and also developing chemical recycling which uses catalysts to transform waste plastics into useful chemical building blocks. The alliance will indeed invest in these new processes and technologies. But importantly, funds will go into the immediate heart of the problem, targeting clean-up, and waste collection and management near key rivers in South and Southeast Asia, where much of the leakage occurs.
The alliance cites a 2017 study by the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ and the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences estimating that 90% of river borne plastic waste comes from 10 major rivers – eight in Asia, and two in Africa while 60% of the plastic waste in the ocean can be sourced to five countries in Southeast Asia.
TACKLING POLLUTION AT THE SOURCE
Here, clean-up is key to solving the immediate problem. It must be tackled at the source.
“You’re going to see cities and rivers be the focus of a lot of the initial work of the alliance,” said Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow, in a discussion of the alliance’s launch.
Along these key rivers, people often use them or streams that lead into the rivers as a convenient way to dispose of household waste. And monsoons and floods can also take plastic waste from mismanaged landfills out to the ocean, Fitterling noted.
“If we can tackle that at the source, we can stem that tide. And then we can start to develop the circular economy that brings, not only value from the plastic, but also social value to make people’s lives better,” he said.
One of the key partners of the alliance is non-profit Renew Oceans, which will initially focus on the Ganges River in India.
“It is estimated [the Ganges] contributes 1.2bn lb of plastic waste to the oceans each year, and there are 400m residents that live [in the area],” said Priyanka Bakaya, CEO and founder of Renew Oceans.
Practically, this involves building fences to collect plastic waste as it flows down rivers, and most importantly, paying waste pickers to collect the plastic. “Once they see the value in those plastics, we’ll see less of those plastics in the environment,” said Bakaya.
In one of Renew Ocean’s models, mobile stations are set up to collect unrecyclable plastics, to convert them into fuels such as diesel. Waste pickers receive compensation directly tied to the fuel generated from the plastic waste. If the Renew Oceans project in the Ganges is successful, it can be scaled to other regions of the world.
The is widely being discussed at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland. In a panel discussion, participants suggested that packaging should be designed with the future in mind and that the recycling issue was tied to the lack of effective waste management as well as product design.
“It all comes down to the economics of waste,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of post-consumer waste firm TerraCycle. “Consumers want things that are convenient and affordable.”
COST OF DOING BUSINESS
For the global polymers sector, which faces the threat of reduced long-term growth amid regulatory and consumer backlash, the success of the alliance will be critical.
Chemical and plastics producers, among others in the coalition, committed to spend over $1bn, with a goal of boosting this to $1.5bn in five years to address the problem in a multi-pronged approach, including new technologies, processes and infrastructure, and education.
And the challenge will be ongoing. No different than ensuring safety in operations, producers simply must view this as a cost of doing business.