From the start of the pandemic, people all over the world united in their efforts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Key workers operated around the clock, stadiums transformed into vaccine centres, and remote working became a mainstream movement overnight. The global response showed that if a problem is big enough, it’s possible to shift gears quickly and take action.
As society takes steps on the road to recovery, what can we learn from this tragedy that can help us to solve another global crisis – plastic pollution?
Escalating plastic consumption
Developing economies are struggling to cope with rapidly increasing levels of plastic consumption and waste, which is hard to manage and associated with multiple social, environmental and human health risks. The landmark Breaking the Plastic Wave report found that low- and middle-income countries contribute 93% of all plastic pollution globally, despite accounting for just 58% of plastic waste generation. This is primarily a result of a growing population with a lack of access to proper solid waste management – in fact, around two billion people worldwide do not have any access to waste collection services at all. But it’s important we do not overlook how waste exports from richer countries contribute to this problem because plastic waste is being sent to countries without the necessary infrastructure to deal with it in an environmentally responsible way.
Closing the innovation gap
As plastic consumption continues to grow, what can we do to prevent poorer countries from continuing to follow in the footsteps of the Global North? In other words, how can they skip the prevailing system that is characterised by high levels of waste generation and downstream management where waste has to be burned, buried, or shipped aboard? One where recycling levels for plastic languish at around 9%.
We know the costs of developing infrastructure to manage plastic waste at the end of the pipe are too high for most low- and middle-income governments to manage, and that many interventions developed in the Global North aren’t contextually appropriate. But what would happen if we kickstarted a movement that incentivised upstream innovation – delivering solutions that are relevant to local needs and can end plastic waste all together? What if we could deliver the utility that single-use plastic provides in the Global North, without the cost to the environment, economy and health?
This is where leapfrogging comes in – the theory that countries can accelerate development by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries, and move directly to more advanced ones. Leapfrogging enabled some countries to skip fixed land-line telephone technology and move straight to the mobile phone – but what does leapfrogging to a circular plastic economy look like?
A blueprint for upstream innovation
Here are three key elements within a blueprint for how low- and middle-income countries can leapfrog to a plastic circular economy:
1. Create an environment that enables change
Economic incentives are needed to level the playing field and send a clear message that will drive innovation and nurture home-grown talent. Designing the right mechanisms requires countries to evaluate their context and design policies that fit with the level of economic development, infrastructure, environmental policymaking and enforcement capacity, and the readiness of stakeholders to respond. Some ingredients to create the environment for change are:
2. Target investment and efforts to address the most problematic plastic waste sources
The biggest reductions in waste and pollution can be delivered by finding alternatives to the six types of plastic packaging that are projected to account for 86% of the total plastic waste reduction achievable by 2040. These are multilayer and multi-material plastics (like shampoo and condiment portions, crisp and sweet packets), business-to-business packaging, films, bottles, carrier bags, and food service disposables.
3. Focus on upstream innovation that prevents the need for single-use plastic
Successful implementation of three system change levers can reduce plastic consumption by 30% and avoid 125 million tonnes of macroplastic waste by 2040. They are:
The biggest wins can be achieved through the development of new delivery models, which offer the largest reduction potential at 18%. These systems are the most effort-intensive to establish and need pioneering governments and businesses to collaborate to develop new services and infrastructure. However, after the transition period, eliminating plastic waste altogether delivers economic as well as environmental and other consumer benefits.
Driving the refill revolution
Fortunately, there are already green shoots of innovation emerging. Algramo is a start-up that started in Chile, and has now spread to high-income countries including the United States. It aims to drive the refill revolution with smart dispensing systems that allow users to pay for the product rather than the packaging. Once purchased via the app, users can order what they need before refilling their containers from an electric tricycle at their door or an in-store vending machine.
Too often we get stuck in a cycle of shifting the dial incrementally. Our response to COVID-19 helped to rewrite this narrative and now is the time to seize the momentum. With a strong focus on innovation, we can drive change and enable the Global South to leapfrog to a healthier, more sustainable future.