As global awareness about plastic waste in our ocean grows, people are starting to act: companies are pledging to use more recycled content; some governments are setting goals to address highly littered products; and people are looking for ways to reduce their plastic footprint. Each of these steps has an important role to play, particularly in areas where waste collection systems already exist. But what about where they don’t? Research tells us that up to 80% of ocean plastic starts out on land, with much of it coming from rapidly developing countries that have yet to build systems to manage local waste. Given the number and pace of people entering the consumer class, failing to collect and manage waste in those places will mean more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
That’s why a recent announcement by a coalition of nearly thirty leading global companies is so remarkable. In announcing the Alliance to End Plastic Waste[i], a new global nonprofit to invest in waste management, those companies are filling a critical gap by bringing investment, innovation and solutions to places where they are needed most. Companies that have joined the Alliance agree that plastic waste in the environment is unacceptable and that change is the only way forward. There is no single, simple solution. Success will require investing in new ways of managing resources to achieve greater circularity, dramatically improving recovery and recycling; developing new packaging formats and product delivery mechanisms; and building entirely new business models.
The Alliance is notable for a couple of reasons. The first is the scale of its ambition. Alliance members have committed over $1 billion to this work, with a goal of $1.5 billion over the next five years to help solve this problem. And these investments are designed to be catalytic—meaning they will prove a case for investments in systems and technologies that can be scaled with the addition of development finance, impact investors and, ultimately, private equity.
The Alliance is also notable because it involves the breadth of experience, expertise and global perspectives of companies that make, sell, use and recycle plastic—the so-called plastic “value chain.” This is important because the problem is complex and solutions are locally-dependent, so no single company or sector acting alone could have the needed perspective or impact.
The Alliance will focus its investments in four key areas: expanding infrastructure to collect, manage and recycle used plastics, particularly in high-leakage regions; accelerating innovations in packaging design and technology that increase efficiency and create value from post-use plastics; promoting education and engagement among governments, businesses and communities; and cleaning up concentrated areas of plastic waste already in the environment—especially in rivers that carry land-based waste to the ocean.
These investments complement numerous existing commitments undertaken by individual Alliance members to use and reuse resources with greater circularity, and commitments by plastics makers in the United States, Canada and Europe to recycle or recover 100% plastic packaging by 2040.
Structurally, the Alliance is an independent, cross-sector nonprofit consisting of global companies that manufacture consumer goods, chemicals, plastics and packaging, and waste management firms. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a founding partner in the initiative. This broad collective brings together unprecedented access to world-class expertise and resources (technical, engineering, logistics etc.) to help solve this problem, along with insights from regions where the waste challenge is the greatest.
Out of the gate, the Alliance has set its sights on an initial group of projects including: establishing partnerships with cities in high-leakage areas; providing funds to the Incubator Network by Circulate Capital, which was launched at the G7 in September 2018; developing a global information project to support waste management systems with data, metrics, standards and methodologies; creating a capacity building collaboration in partnerships with organizations like the United Nations; and supporting the nonprofit Renew Oceans to aid in capturing waste from ten high-leakage rivers in Asia before it reaches the ocean.
The Alliance is just getting started, and it’s off to a strong start, thanks to broad and growing participation from leading companies across the plastics value chain. Expanding the Alliance’s membership is critical to sustaining momentum. The Alliance encourages all companies, big or small, from all regions and sectors to support this effort.
[i] Members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste consist of leading companies that make, sell, process, collect and recycle plastics. Trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council, are not members of the Alliance.