PLASTIC POLLUTION – How to tackle the plastic waste problem from the bottom up

Originally published as a podcast, Kristin Hughes director of the Global Plastic Action Partnership, talks with Innovation Forum’s Ian Welsh about how the partnership has worked to tackle plastic waste around the world, initially in Indonesia, Vietnam and Ghana. She argues why it’s critical that, in framing solutions, a plastic pollution problem doesn’t turn into a food waste problem and why consumers need to accept that not all plastic is bad.

Ian Welsh: What is the Global Plastic Action Partnership and why was it set up?

Kristin Hughes: The Global Plastic Action Partnership is a multi-stakeholder platform that was arranged under the World Economic Forum’s umbrella to address the plastic pollution crisis. 

The genesis of it was from when Canada was chairing the G7 and the UK created the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance. The two of them then connected to say: “What can we do around marine litter?” In addition, there were some very strong consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi who were in the news because their bottles kept up washing up onshore. 

We had a unique opportunity in the World Economic Forum to pull together those governments and to bring on board the private sector. And so Coca-Cola, Pepsi, the UK, Canada, along with Nestlé and Dow, crafted the Global Plastic Action Partnership. 

IW: You have been working as the partnership for just over a year. What have been your principal achievements in the last 12 months?

KH: We were launched at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York in September 2018. Then [in early 2019], with the government of Indonesia, we launched the Indonesian National Plastic Action Partnership. We’ve been working directly with the government and others on the ground in Indonesia to run a data set analysis to understand where the plastic pollution is actually coming from and ask what solutions we can craft. 

We’re now in the final phase of delivering what we call an investment roadmap. Think about a three-pillared approach: the first pillar is understanding and gathering data, then analysing it, being able to create an evidence-based understanding of where that plastic pollution or waste flow is coming from. 

That leads then into the second pillar of: “What are some concrete ideas and actions that government, that business, and that all of us in society can take in order to address this?” 

Then the third pillar: “What are the investments? What are those investable solutions that are going to be needed in order to address the second and first pillars?”

In Indonesia, we’re now in that third pillar phase, and we’ve now also identified action tracks – very specific areas of work that have been addressed in a National Action Roadmap. We’ve got an innovation action track, we’ve got an investment action track, we’ve got a policy track. These have come through our 12 months of engagement, research, and output in Indonesia.

Changing relationship 

 IW: It’s great that you say you’re using evidence-based understanding, because it strikes me that the plastics debate needs to move quickly away from an “all plastic is bad” type argument to a more mature one, that accepts some plastics are essential, and that really we’ve just had a collection and recycling problem as much as anything else. How far do you agree with that?

KH: I wholeheartedly agree with that. A lot of plastic is necessary, it’s very lightweight, it’s durable, it’s very malleable and easy to use. You think about transporting items or food safety or medicine safety – the benefits that plastic bring are really overwhelming.

However, it’s our relationship with plastic that I really think needs to change. How can we start to institute certain behaviours that create a more circular economy approach to that plastic? Look at various new business models around things like the Loop Alliance and the reuse-refill model versus single use.

IW: Let’s drill down a little bit into food-based issues then. What are the essential steps to ensure that we don’t move from a plastic pollution problem to a food waste problem?

KH: That’s a really critical question and one that I think a lot of us are grappling with. We need food-grade, safe plastic, in particular when we try to think about maintaining the preservation of fresh foods and as they’re shipped from certain locations. There is a benefit in having that plastic. 

Also, when we say, “Let’s try to move away from utilising plastic,” are there innovative materials that won’t be as damaging to the environment as the single-use wrap kind of plastic that we use today? 

We may actually end with something that’s far more damaging to the environment. We want to really be thoughtful and not just have knee-jerk reactions when it comes to implementing these solutions.

Regional champions 

IW: Your key regional programs are in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Ghana. You’ve talked about Indonesia. What are you doing elsewhere? 

KH: Ghana was the second country in which we actually launched a partnership in October [2019]. We’re very thankful to have Ghana on board and to be able to work with them as a shining example for Africa as we look to build out a circular economy alliance in Africa that’s focused on plastics. We’ve got a great opportunity to really build on some examples already in play.

In Vietnam, we saw a great opportunity. The government came to us and said, “You’ve got this partnership with Indonesia. What could we do in Vietnam that would be similar?” Indonesia and Vietnam, with two very strong, forward-thinking, environmentally focused governments, can be leaders in the ASEAN region. Can they share learnings? Can they leapfrog one another such that they pull the rest of the region up with them? We’re also in conversations with Thailand. We’ve talked to the Philippines. We’ve got some partnerships and others who are talking to Malaysia. We want to pull all these players together so that the total sum is greater than the parts.

IW: In each case, is the focus on developing effective domestic refuse collection and sorting?

KH: Yes, indeed. One of the things we’re really learning through the process is that most of the solutions will be very locally driven. 

As we go into each of these countries, they are looking at their own municipal guidelines but from a national level, but then we’re also working with organisations like the World Bank, who are taking our model and then looking at building it out within regions or cities in these countries, so that they can work with those cities and those regions in finding very specific municipally-focused solutions. You start small but build up larger. We’re really trying to take a bottom-up approach while understanding that top-down as well.

Starting from scratch

IW: I would imagine that, in these locations, you’re starting from a position where there is no domestic refuse collection. You must have to start from the bottom up.

KH: Yes. In many places, there’s very little or no refuse collection. In some places, like Indonesia, where there are massive landfills, we’re trying to help them understand if the landfills are being managed appropriately. Are they close to a river? Could they be managed in a way that would be also more beneficial?

What kinds of investments will actually spur a greater impact? Do you need more collection rates and greater recycling facilities? Should there be investments in things as simple as trucks and roads and landfill just to get it started? 

Then at the same time in places like Indonesia, where you have a very forward-thinking mayor in the city of Surabaya, who’s putting a lot of investment into recycling and sees a huge opportunity for Indonesia in that space, that could be a tremendous opportunity, not just for Surabaya, but for Indonesia on a whole.

IW: How do you think that the environment movement generally can capture the public interest and concern around plastic pollution to inspire greater progress on other pressing issues, climate change being the prime example?

KH: One of the benefits of focusing on plastic waste and pollution is that it’s very tangible. We all see it in everyday life, whether it’s walking into the supermarkets, walking down the road, sometimes we all see it in our garden or the parks. You understand the relationship that you have as a consumer and as a citizen every day with plastic and the benefits of plastic, but also you see it in the polluting ways and the damage that it can cause to our environment.

I think a lot of people are already recognising that this is something that needs to be addressed. They see tangible opportunities as individuals to stop using single-use plastic, to employ reusable water bottles versus plastic single-use bottles, et cetera. 

But there is a much bigger picture here. When we start thinking about the shifts that we take when it comes to trying to eradicate plastic waste and pollution and to really implement circular economy solutions, we also need to think about what are those other education points and how can we inspire beyond that to ensure that we’re all also understanding the roles that we can play in everyday life when it comes to climate change.

This interview took place in early March 2020. For details of Innovation Forum’s 2020 Future of Plastics conference click here