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Our Plastic Problem

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 12 min read
Our Plastic Problem
Eight million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans every year.
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With eight million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans every year, our love affair with the synthetic compound is turning toxic very quickly. Jacob Duer, CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, believes that the solution is not in merely reducing our use of plastic — it is here to stay — but in building holistic ways to deal with the waste efficiently, and sustainably.

SINGAPORE (June 5): In the mid-19th century, British inventor Alexander Parkes created a new material he (not quite modestly) named “parkesine”. The revolutionary material was made of cellulose — derived from cotton fibre — and was the beginning of plastic as we know it today.

However, history writes that Parkes was no savvy businessman: He was bankrupt before his invention could reach its full potential. It took an American, John Wesley Hyatt, to truly popularise the material. He added camphor, thus improving the malleability of the material. In 1869, Hyatt renamed the material “celluloid”. In doing so, he set the stage for humanity’s centuries-long love affair with plastic — an infinitely malleable, strong, and incredibly useful material.

Today, it is found in everything and used everywhere from toys to utensils. You could say we are reliant on plastics but over the last decade or so, the dangers of our relationship with the synthetic product have truly come to fore. In fact, that is an understatement — our partnership with plastic is now turning deadly.

According to the United Nations, 80% of all pollution in seas and oceans comes from land-based activities, and more than eight million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year — the equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic every minute.

Plastic — which we found so useful for its long-lasting, non-degradable properties — is now choking our oceans and quickly creating a massive waste problem, for which we have no easy solutions. It is clear we cannot live without plastic, but we cannot live with it choking our oceans, either.

However, Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) CEO Jacob Duer believes that a solution to our plastic waste problem is possible. Founded in 2019, the AEPW is a global not-for-profit organisation partnering with government, environmental and economic development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and communities around the world to address the challenge to end plastic waste in the environment.

The AEPW connects all industry sectors to develop solutions that will help solve the plastic waste challenge that we face as a society, and to date, 50 companies across the plastics value chain have joined the AEPW and have committed to invest US$1.5 billion ($2.1 billion) towards solutions that will prevent the leakage (from plastic), as well as recover and create value from plastic waste. Some of the members of the alliance include multinational giants such as Exxon Mobil, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, Shell, P&G and PepsiCo.

Duer believes it will take more than village — in fact, it will take the whole world — to tackle our plastic waste problem once and for all, and that the solution lies in creating holistic and self-sustaining ecosystems to deal with the waste efficiently, and sustainably.

Plastic (un)fantastic

Duer, who was the program director for the United Nations’ Environment Programme, has spent over 20 years in the sustainability space. In the past five years, he says he has seen the plastic waste agenda become a topic of broad consciousness among people, morphing into a real movement at a global level.

“I think in many ways, [plastics have] become an environmental issue, in the discussions around climate change and around loss of biodiversity. The reason why it has become so prominent in the minds of people is because it’s an issue that we are faced with in our daily lives, it is something that is tangible,” he says. “On any street we walk on, in any part of the world, any beach we go to, we find plastic, and it’s something that people feel that they can have an impact on.” Increasingly too, governments, consumers and private sector players are pressured to do more to tackle the plastic waste problem. To be sure, the solutions cannot come quickly enough.

According to some estimates, at the current rate we are dumping items such as plastic bottles, bags and cups after a single use, the oceans will carry more plastic mass than fish by 2050. “In addition to just what we can see with our eyes and feel in the environment, is that the numbers are just staggering. Any newspaper that we read, or on any television that we switch on, there was always a plastic or plastic waste story,” he says. “Only 9% of the plastic that has been produced over the past years has been recycled. The numbers are staggering.”

There is a sense of real urgency to do something, because otherwise, we would face an environmental challenge far exceeding our ability to manage, adds Duer. “From the Alliance’s perspective, one of the reasons why we see plastic waste in the environment to the extent that we do,is because waste management structures are simply not in place. In fact, our rate of usage of plastic has exceeded the systems required to manage the waste associated with plastic,” he says.

“Waste management structure to manage it has not followed [in tandem with] the increased use of plastic.” Without a doubt, Duer says plastic remains beneficial to us, and useful in our everyday lives. “We all know that our food is packaged in plastic. We need plastic for medical purposes; the pandemic right now in many ways has shown us why plastic has a use from a safety and security perspective.”

He also points out that plastic is “un-fantastic” for another major factor: The impact of plastic pollution disproportionately impacts low-to-middle income countries. “Increasingly, developing countries, or low-to-middle income countries are being impacted by the majority of the plastic pollution that is happening.

Eighty percent of pollution that we are faced with, is happening in Southeast Asia, India and China, and it is again largely due to the fact that waste management structures are not in place,” he adds. “Two billion people on this planet don’t have access to integrated waste management systems. They don’t have access to proper waste disposal facilities, so that means that even when the waste is collected, it is ending up in what’s supposed to be landfills, but in reality are open dump-sites. That means the waste, including plastic waste, is ending up in the environment,” Duer adds.

Value of plastic

This is where the AEPW comes in: How can it prevent plastic from ending up in our environment as poorly-managed waste? Says Duer: “Looking at plastic from a value chain perspective and also looking at it from a circularity perspective, how can we ensure we are not only talking about the waste model, but also on the value of plastic at the end of its use cycle?”

What this means is: How do we ensure that the plastic waste coming from a single use plastic bottle does not end up in a dumpsite somewhere? Instead, the bottle is returned to the value chain in a different form. So how do we create a circular value chain in which the plastic does not merely become waste after its intended use?

“The value of the plastic that currently ends up in the environment on an annual basis is estimated at between US$80 billion to US$120 billion,” Duer says. “And the reason for this is that there is a lack of knowledge among the general public that plastic that we are using does [and can still] hold value after it has been used.” “So if we are talking about plastic in the plastic value chain, we also have to talk circularly, in that we ensure the resources going into the production of our plastic is kept within the economy, therefore not losing it to the environment.”

This is part of the problem with the conversation surrounding plastic waste: The myth that plastic, once used, has no more value.

In tackling this need to return the value of plastic back to the economy, he has seen the private sector truly coming to fore to do their part. What has been very significant, adds Duer, is that over the past few years, that initiative has not only been among the political elite but also in the private sector. “What we have seen in the last two years is that the private sector is stepping up and taking on an important role in addressing these very important environmental and sustainability issues,” Duer points out.

In his previous role with the United Nations, he had led the work on chemical and waste management from a policy perspective, and how the private sector plays a role. “One of the things that I’ve always looked at from a policy perspective, is the important role that the private sector plays, not just in coming together [for the cause], but being the place where innovation and solutions happen,” he adds. “I made the jump away from the United Nations into a not-for-profit organisation like the Alliance because I believe that the private sector is now taking on that role [of innovation and solutions], and are willing to invest the resources that are required to start identifying and developing these innovative solutions for addressing the issue of plastic waste in the environment.”

The AEPW, then, is working to put in place systems that capture this value, so that it is retained and brought back into the economy. “By bringing that value into the economy, we are putting in place systems that will require people, in particular in developing countries — people around sorting, collection and other jobs can be created around an integrated waste management,” says Duer. “That means lifting people out of poverty and we are seeing that in some of our projects.”

One of AEPW’s projects is a three-year collaboration with Project STOP, an initiative co-founded by an Austrian chemical company Borealis and advisory, business building and investment company SYSTEMIQ. The project designs, implements, and scales circular economy solutions to prevent plastic pollution in Southeast Asia.

The project in Jembrana — located in the northwest coast of Bali — aims to dramatically improve waste collection, bring collection services for the first time to households, create permanent local jobs in the waste management industry and clean up areas littered with plastic pollution. This project will conduct diagnostic studies to understand how and why plastic waste enters the environment and design a new, tailored system to combat it, as well as build and supply equipment to scale up waste collection and sorting efforts.

It will also hire local workers at living wages and responsible working conditions to manage and staff the new waste management system and partner with local organisations to encourage behaviour change at the community level through awareness and educational programs, so more people fully utilize the systems being created to dispose of waste.

The AEPW will also support a feasibility study to achieve a future free of unmanaged plastic waste throughout the island and to assess how to extend the approach, as well as provide financial support and technical expertise. “[The Jembrana project] looks at putting integrated waste management systems in place. Smaller communities are now starting to have sorting at the level of their households and their waste is being picked up through an organised system and into a centralised sorting place,” says Duer. “We are starting to put people into jobs, lifting people out of informal structures where theymay have been informal waste pickers with an unstable income, into more secure working environments.”

Another project is a partnership with the Grameen Creative Lab to support the development of Zero Plastic Waste Cities to reduce plastic waste leaking into the environment. Grameen Creative Lab is an organisation founded and led by Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, and this project will develop and implement social businesses – tackling one or more social problems in a financially self-sustaining way — to enable improved municipal waste management systems. Starting in 2020, these projects will be launched in two separate cities in India and Vietnam.

The AEPW also intends to demonstrate at least three zero-plastic-waste cities and divert over 3,400 kilotons of plastic waste through AEPW projects, helping more than 100 at-risk cities. “So this is more about just plastic and plastic waste and that value, but by putting in place the systems we ought to, we will be contributing towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in a much broader sense,” says Duer.

Innovative solutions

Ultimately, the AEPW believes that the core of tackling plastic waste is in innovation. “We believe that when we talk about plastic waste, we have to talk about innovation. A lot of ideas that are required to solve this problem have not yet been put out there on the market, and they’re being tested right now through our projects. Secondly, we need investments in infrastructure. There needs to be large scale investments in the solutions that are being identified,” Duer says.

“Thirdly, we need to have people with us. There has to be awareness around behavioural change, there has to be education efforts being made so that we as citizens, no matter where we live in the world, have an understanding of the usage of plastic in our products, and understanding of how plastic has value,” he adds.

“Our ultimate goal is very simple, to end plastic waste in the environment. How we will get there is by identifying scalable solutions, by working with investors that can catalyse and scale the solutions that we are bringing to the forefront and through integrated waste management systems so that any waste, not just plastic waste, does not end up in the environment,” he says. “It’s about bringing that value of that waste back into the economy, because we do care from a resource efficiency perspective about our resources and our natural resources. So we do want to ensure that what we are using from the very beginning of the plastic value chain does not get lost.”

It is a huge task and an ever bigger challenge, but Duer believes that with the right members, partners, and commitment, that tackling plastic waste decisively, sustainably and conscientiously is achievable.

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