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Global Plastic Waste Challenges Require Global Waste Solutions

With fewer mechanisms to collect plastic waste, industry and governments are working together to create new initiatives that address global plastic waste through international investment.

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The United Nations reports that just ten rivers in Asia are responsible for more than 90 percent of plastic waste in the oceans. While plastics have had a large benefit on developing countries to make products—especially in health and safety more affordable—these countries oftentimes do not have the infrastructure to properly recycle the material.

Using plastics, which are crucial to health care, has increased during the global pandemic as people not only purchase more personal protective equipment, but rely on more online shopping to stay socially distanced. Yet at the same time, across the world, recycling centers closed due to health concerns over COVID-19 contamination and once-recyclable plastics were diverted to the landfill. In developing countries, individual entrepreneurs who once collected and recycled thrown away plastics were overwhelmed with increased flows of waste and recycling, making waste management more challenging.

With fewer mechanisms to collect plastic waste, industry and governments are working together to create new initiatives to address global plastic waste through international investment. These initiatives are already starting to take hold to address plastic waste with a global perspective.

Changing the Conversation

While both developed and developing countries produce plastic waste, developed countries boast complex waste management systems and highly regulated infrastructure that properly sort and dispose of different products. Contrarily, in developing countries, the lack of proper waste management facilities and regulations allow for waste spills and leakages.

By recognizing that developing countries oftentimes lack the infrastructure to recycle the plastics that many of us take for granted, responsible stakeholders are moving to address plastic waste through innovations that support these regions first.

A recent example of forward-thinking solutions comes from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). AEPW has an open request for proposals relating to projects that can scale advanced recycling around the world. AEPW has a specific focus on developing countries, though more advanced recycling solutions would benefit all countries, and this RFP would award up to $20 million per viable project.

Our Collective Problem Requires Collective Action

According to the United Nations, in 2016, the globe’s 7.4 billion people collectively generated 242 million tons of plastic waste. In the last five years, that number has increased to 300 million tons and is only expected to increase over the next few decades. 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, developing or otherwise. 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 developing countries can help solve the collective global plastic waste problem.

The Waste Solution – International Investment

Programs like the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC) $2.5 billion Ocean Plastics Initiative shows that government partnerships with private industry are already leading the way in cross-border collaborations and investment to end plastic in our waterways. Announced in late 2020, the DFC Initiative focuses on infrastructure investment to reduce the flow of plastic waste and debris into oceans and waterways. Enabling responsible waste management in developing countries is central to this new initiative and will help keep debris out of the marine environment.

Similarly, in 2018, the United Kingdom invested over GBP$61 million in the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA), a program focused on preventing plastic from entering oceans through the improvement of waste management systems in developing countries. Like other cross-border efforts, the CCOA showcases the importance of integrated action across governments, private sector businesses, and international non-profits.

Although some programs have ended due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, industry and government clearly agree that just one piece of plastic in our environment and waterways it too many. Stakeholders also happen to agree that international investment and cooperation are key to combat this problem.

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