This Is Plastics: Global Plastic Waste Challenges Require Global Waste Solutions


Global Plastic Waste Challenges Require Global Waste Solutions

To tackle unnecessary waste in the environment, the plastics industry and governments are collaborating to create new initiatives that prioritize international investment in a more circular economy.


From building materials and shelters to medical supplies and food packaging, plastics provide essential, affordable products to communities across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted plastics’ critical role in providing effective healthcare and food security around the world, but with these essential uses, the amount of plastic waste generated worldwide continues to rise. Further, disparate approaches to waste management and limited investments in global recycling technologies are preventing progress in keeping waste out of the environment.

As international policymakers continue to address the ongoing challenge of mitigating plastic waste, the focus must remain on banning pollution and waste, not plastics, by prioritizing solutions that bolster and optimize waste management infrastructure.

Tackling waste management across the globe

Global waste reduction requires effective waste management. The United Nations estimates that of the more than 100 million tons of plastics currently found in our oceans, nearly 80 percent of global plastic emissions to waterways can be traced to only 1,000 rivers, with small, urban rivers among the most polluting. Differing recycling and waste management infrastructure between and within countries only exacerbates the problem. For people in all countries to benefit from plastics, policymakers must evaluate opportunities to use, reuse and repurpose the material by improving waste management systems.

While more investment in recycling infrastructure is needed on a global scale, low-income countries especially lack the infrastructure to properly recycle and repurpose plastics. The World Bank estimates that low-income countries properly collect and dispose of less than half of all waste in cities, compared to high-income countries’ waste collection rate of roughly 96 percent. While the costs of unnecessary waste in the environment are felt across the globe, individuals in the poorest nations often feel a disproportionate share of the burden.

Given these statistics, some organizations, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), have directed their focus toward low-income countries to advance global reduction in waste. For example, AEPW funded the expansion of Kenyan company Taka Taka Solutions, which collects residential and commercial waste in Nairobi—helping divert 1,000 tons of plastic waste from landfills over six months and transform it into recycled material for new products. Further international investment in waste management infrastructure can help bridge the gap between low- and high-income countries, reducing unnecessary plastic waste in the environment across the globe.

Our collective problem requires collective action

In 2021, the globe’s 7.8 billion people collectively generated nearly 300 million tons of plastic waste—a number that is only expected to increase over the next few decades if waste management practices don’t improve. The disparity between responsible waste management systems and disorganized, sometimes absent, recycling infrastructure became most apparent when China stopped purchasing plastic scrap in 2018. Nations like Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam have tried to pick up where China left off, but lack the infrastructure to do so. In fact, Vietnam claimed it had reached capacity on how much waste it could receive within months.

Ted Siegler, an economist and partner at DSM Environmental Services, explains that this problem cannot be solved by the actions of just one country. Instead, Siegler argues that private investment is needed to help “developing countries… prioritize solid waste management because they already face so many other insurmountable problems.” His research reaffirms the need for collaborative, global solutions that will increase investment in global waste management systems so that there can be real change in plastic waste challenges.

The rising demand for plastics products goes hand in hand with the modernization of the global economy which has made products more affordable and more durable. Yet with this rising demand is a need for innovative recycling solutions led by cross-border efforts. Targeted investment focused on responsible waste management and recycling infrastructure programs is just one way in which all nations can help solve the collective global plastic waste problem.

The waste solution: international investment

The United Nations Environmental Assembly is working to develop a global plastics treaty to “End Plastic Pollution” and reduce global plastic waste by enacting a binding agreement by 2024. To be successful and effectively reduce plastic waste, an international agreement must encourage collaboration between governments and industry leaders and prioritize economic circularity.

Even as a global plastics treaty is yet to be finalized, existing cross-border collaborations have shown the promise of international investment in waste management solutions to support a more circular economy. Programs like the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC) $2.5 billion Ocean Plastics Initiative announced in late 2020 focus on increasing infrastructure investments to reduce the flow of plastic waste and debris into oceans and waterways. Similarly, in 2018, the United Kingdom invested over GBP$61 million in the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA), a program that seeks to prevent plastic from entering oceans by improving waste management practices. Clearly, integrated action across governments, private sector businesses and international non-profits is paramount to reducing waste while preserving plastics’ unparalleled importance in the global economy.

Industry and government clearly agree that even one piece of plastic in the environment is a waste. With international collaboration and investment in innovative waste management solutions, countries around the world can reduce the challenge of plastic waste and help create a more circular economy.

Want to do more?

Still have questions?