Plastic pollution is one of the biggest problems that faces humanity. Every year, 300 million tonnes of plastics produced, half of which is for single use and lands up in the environment. The problem is pretty evident in India, where the streets are littered with plastic bags, and there’s plastic float-sam in the water bodies. NUmerous state governments have announced measures like banning of Single Use Plastic but no to avail. Even the PM had announced his intention to do away with SUP, but shied away from announcing a straight-forward ban.
So what is the solution to plastic pollution? If we can’t stop its production, how else can we solve it?
By managing waste, according to Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). The AEPW group, which includes Exxon, Dow, Total, Shell, Chevron Phillips, and Procter & Gamble, is an alliance that is investing money in solving the waste management piece. AEPW has committed $1.5 billion toward keeping plastics out of the environment. Yet, there are many questions that arise, from the technological purview to the ethics of having plastic producing companies on board. In an exclusive interaction, Jacob shares his take on all these questions, including the ethical side. Excerpts.
To begin with, plastic pollution is a huge issue plaguing our world; can it be solved by managing plastic waste, especially when recycling plastic is still costly and tricky?
One needs to take a bigger perspective on the issue of plastic. First of all, we need to recognize that plastic does provide an essential service. Plastic is not only durable but also affordable, and it helps to protect food. Plastic is also hygienic, and we have seen in the context of COVID-19, the importance of plastic in the healthcare sector. Yet, it is important to look at all parts of the plastics value chain, and that means ensuring that it is designed for circularity so that at the end of its use one can ensure that the value is retained and brought back to the economy. The reason why plastic ends up in the environment today, I would say almost independent of the amount of in terms of the size of the consumption, is because of the lack of waste management systems, what we refer to as the weak links. It is in this sphere that the largest scale of investments is required; if we don’t capture the plastic waste at the end of its use, it will automatically end up in the environment. According to estimates, some 3 billion people across the globe do not have access to organized waste, sorting or waste collection systems and that’s where the Alliance comes in, and we are focusing right now.
We do recognize that our investments of $1.5 billion, all though it is a large amount of resources won’t take us to the end, that’s why for collaboration for us is so critical. No single company, or community, civil society organization or countries for that matter can address this problem alone. Only if we come together from governments both local and national, private sector, civil society organizations, academia, the scientific community and the intergovernmental organizations and pool our resources both financial and technological, we will be able to resolve the pollution issue.
Coming to the plastic waste itself, a majority of the plastic waste that is generated is what we call Single-Use Plastic (SUP), and there has been a growing movement across the globe on curbing the usage of SUP. What is your opinion, especially in the context that recycling SUP is complicated?
It is important to recognize that plastic including SUP does serve a purpose in society, I think what we are seeing if we are looking at the numbers today if we don’t act now, there is a projected three times increase in the plastic consumption and therefore also the related plastic waste just in the next 25 years. It is vital that we address this issue. We believe that the largest investments are required in managing the plastic waste, and that’s also why one of our strategic pillars is around innovation. Today we do not have the technology in place that drive recycling to the extent that we would like to see. But progress is being made, take the case of the pet bottle there is already a machinery and business model associated with it. That is why a majority of those bottles are automatically, almost brought back into the economy. Talking of SUP, the belief that plastic that there is no value in it is not all that right. The value of plastic that can be recovered from such waste is between $80-120 Billion. That value is being lost to the society today because it ends up in the environment, landfills, open dump-sites or is incinerated. Through investments in integrated waste management systems, we can collect it to at least make sure that it doesn’t end up in the environment and through the investment in innovation and technologies around recycling we can bring that part of recycled plastic back into the economy. There are already technical solutions out there in terms of chemicals or advanced recycling, but those solutions are not scaled yet. We need to bring them to scale in order to have a real impact and to make a real dent into this problem.
It is often said that the plastic problem is a third-world issue, much of the waste while it is generated in the advanced countries; it is exported to the low-income countries. What is your stance on that?
I think it is a global problem and not necessarily as a third-world or a first-world issue. Maybe, the type of problem is different from whether you sit in Europe or the US or developing countries. The way we are looking at it in the region is significant plastic waste sitting in the environment, where we are seeing our investment going is to move those countries and those communities into what we call the waste management hierarchy. By investing in the right waste management systems, one can ensure that the plastic waste does not pollute the environment.
A vast majority of waste ends up in the ocean. While the Great Pacific Patch is quite famous, there are such floating plastic garbage patches in all oceans, including the Indian Ocean. The river Ganges is one of the leading means of adding plastic waste to the oceans. What needs to be done?
We need to address the challenge from different angles. On the one hand, we need to invest in ensuring that what sits in the environment whether it is a river, the oceans or on land, is taken out so that the pollution that exists is brought to an end. But more importantly, we need to ensure that we turn off the tap of the leakage itself. So how do we ensure that the future leakage does not happen, that is the long-term solution that we need to look at, after all, we can’t be cleaning up for eternity. To prevent such leakage, we need investment in integrated waste management system as it is the long-term solution. The communities and countries are looking for and where large-scale investments are to happen. When we are talking with development banks that is the focus area as well. Investments in long-term waste management infrastructure have been an area that partly has been overseen for many years. And has not received the amount of attention and investments that are required. Plastic waste in many ways has brought this to the forefront, and that is why we are starting to see that it is becoming a key priority for many countries but also a key priority for development banks, venture capital and private equity.
What are your views on regulations and compliance, how effective they can be? For instance, can Extended Producer Responsibility of EPR be a solution?
Yet again, as I said earlier, we need a combination of solutions. I come from a policy-world, and I have seen the added value that the right regulation, right policy frameworks can have in driving the right action. But we need to the private sector to take on an increasing role and commitment in contributing to both investing but also developing the type of solutions that we need to move towards achieving the UN Sustainability Goals. So, it is not an either-or, but it is a combination of measures that range from regulation and the right regulation. The right policy framework to engagement and investment in new solutions in new technologies by the private sector and if we see that collaboration happening between those different areas, the public and the private sector. Then I think, we are in a new space, and have new opportunities for developing a new type of solutions for addressing the sustainability changes that we are faced with not only in the areas of plastic waste but in any development area, going forward.
While the plastic problem faced by all is global, yet, how can various stakeholders collaborate on a local level?
Precisely, this is where the Alliance comes into the picture. We can play a role not only in developing solutions, but also exporting and adjusting and adapting those solutions to local circumstances. For instance, we have a project running in Jembrana, Indonesia. We have started with an integrated waste management system project in a relatively small community. We are now looking at the opportunity for replicating and scaling that so the learning that we are doing from there will be expanded further from one community to 30+ communities in Indonesia. But we also are looking at the learnings from there and seeing how we can use those in other parts of the world. I would say, the same for some of the investment that we will be doing, in North America and Europe, we would want to bring those solutions the technology to other parts of the world. The reality is where the recycling technology is not in place, can we develop recycling technologies and solutions building on existing structures. There is an opportunity for taking those solutions and bringing them elsewhere in the world so that we don’t have to do the same in multiple places. Learning from one place becomes the solution in another place.
Let’s come to India; we are facing a huge issue. Every day some 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated. How can we resolve the problem?
We can solve this issue through means of collaboration. All the stakeholders need to work together, like the national government, local municipalities, the private sector, operating in this space. In terms of the investment, we are talking about billions of dollars of investment required in a country like India. But we need solutions, and we need tested and tried solutions, then we can start looking for real money. Right now, there are resources, commitments from development banks, equity and venture capital but also from the government who want to invest in the right solution. But the solutions are lacking, and that is why the Alliance in a unique space because we have access to resources both financial and we also have access to technical know-how. Through our 50 member companies, we can tap into the knowledge and develop solutions that have not been created before. We are working with innovators and incubators in bringing new ideas and start-ups to the forefront. And if we through our investments can develop solutions, derisk those solutions. We can also be a match-maker between where the need at the local level and where the real big resources are sitting, namely the development banks and investment funds. We had conversations recently with one of the big development banks; they are sitting not only on huge amounts of money that are dedicated to infrastructure investment. Their biggest challenge is to find the relevant solutions that can be invested. So these banks don’t want to go if the risks are too high. We can help them generate the right investments for the real impact.
The Alliance has a lot of plastic manufacturing companies as its founding members. There is a view that Alliance is like a PR activity for the plastic companies. Your views?
It is important to underline that all our member companies see themselves as being part of the solution going forward. That is what we see in any development area, where the private sector comes in and invest in sustainability is at the top of the agenda for most companies, and I can assure you that all the companies that have joined the Alliance are at the forefront, when we talk sustainability, when we talk investment in sustainable solutions. Going forward, and that’s how we see it also, important to recognize that we, as an Alliance, are an independent alliance. We are a non-profit, a public charity and that we are going in and developing real impact on the ground. We can tap into the technical know-how of our member companies. So, therefore, we can combine resources with commitments with technological know-how and therefore develop unique solutions.
Coming back to SUP, a lot many countries like Kenya have banned it. Many Indian states too have banned SUP in varying degrees. What is your take?
I think it is a combination of solutions. It is probably difficult to say that there is one solution. All countries are different; the needs are different. Whether we look at countries in Africa, where I have spent many years of my life, or in South East Asia, where I am living now. I think there is no one answer or a single solution that fits all. But, countries themselves have to identify what are the solutions that meet their objectives. One thing that I have learned, having spent many years in the space of policymaking working for a non-profit public charity, is that everybody needs to be a part of the solution. If you join those forces between government national and local, between policies, make the right policy and regulations with investment and innovation from the private sector. We are going to address issues going forward, so there is no answer to that, but there is an answer of everyone needs to be around the table, and everyone needs to talk and collaborate and cooperate. With that, I am convinced that we can put an end to the plastic waste in the environment.
At times it seems like that like Climate Change, the plastic pollution issue is too huge to be solved? Can you bring some optimism to the plastic problem?
The plastic waste challenge is, first of all, a visible solution, so it is tangible, and we can all contribute to our daily actions to be part of those solutions. It starts in many ways with the waste management side, something very simple, we can ensure that any product that we use or the end-of-life of any product, whether it is plastic or any other material, we need to ensure that it does not end in the environment. We need to have a more elaborate approach to thinking recycling; we want to ensure that anything that we use is brought back into the economy, whether it is plastic or our clothes or building material. Whatever, it is so; it starts with the individual that may be the difference between the plastic waste challenge and many of the development challenges that we are faced. So, I have to say that we are very optimistic of our member companies, our partners, whether it is UN agencies, development agencies or the investment banks. This feels and so do we that this is with the right commitment and with the right collaboration a problem that we can bring to an end. Of course, it will not happen overnight, but with the proper sense of urgency and right focus and the right approach, we can see impacts also in the short-term.
At least for the sake of the environment should we do away with those shampoo sachets or 200 ml water bottles?
I think what we need to ensure is that whenever we use it, it does not end up in the environment. We ensure that it is brought back so that it does, so we don’t throw the bottle or the plastic sachet but that we put it into a disposable place. We ensure that it gets collected from there and in that way, we are not polluting, and at the same time, we ensure that the value that contained in that waste is brought back through the right recycling mechanism.
I am not sure; when you were at the UN, you would have responded differently.
I think our focus again is on waste management side that’s where our investments are going, and that’s where we are looking at making a difference. We are only, one part of the bigger conversation, but we believe that we are an important part of the solution that is being created for the future.