Waste solutions developer rePurpose Global is exploring a new angle to plastic waste management, through an educational programme to upskill corporate leaders and environmental practitioners.
- rePurpose Global will pilot a project to educate decision-makers on why and how to address the plastic pollution crisis.
- Increasing production, excessive consumption and inefficiencies in waste management of plastic have led to a global crisis with drastic environmental and social consequences.
- We should expect to see more focus on education as a tool for changing mindsets on plastic solutions.
The five-year Plastic Reality Project is designed to help bridge the gap between ambition and action. It will involve taking 5,000 corporate leaders on educational expeditions, guiding them through rigorous training programmes, encouraging participation in peer mentoring networks and providing competency-based certification.
The scale of our plastics problem
Global plastics production reached an estimated 460 million tonnes in 2019, generating 353 million tonnes of waste since the year 2000. These figures are projected to rise to 1.2 billion and 1 billion tonnes, respectively, according to a 2022 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The OECD’s research found that 22% of global plastic waste is mismanaged or goes uncollected, 49% is landfilled, 19% is incinerated and just 9 % is recycled.
Plastic pollution destroys natural ecosystems, endangers wildlife, and is extremely harmful to human health. Meanwhile, the production of virgin plastic from fossil fuels, which accounts for 4% of total oil and gas demand each year, is a major source of carbon emissions.
Limitations of the current plastic waste management system
There are systemic failures in our society’s approach to addressing this crisis.
Manufacturers have limited responsibility for the impacts of their plastic-containing products and are poorly incentivised to reduce production or introduce effective plastic waste management strategies.
Fossil fuel companies and others reaping the benefits of cheap plastic materials, which are not priced to reflect their environmental and social cost, have instead used lobbying and marketing campaigns to shift responsibility elsewhere.
Things are changing, however, with new legislation being developed around extended producer responsibility. Without this shift, responsibility for waste is largely held by consumers, who are encouraged to dispose of used plastics through available recycling systems.
What many are unaware of is that recycling is an unprofitable industry with significant challenges. Its limitations include high costs, health and safety issues, and technological barriers to the quality – and therefore value – of recycled materials that can be produced.
Low and middle-income countries are particularly lacking in recycling infrastructure but although high-income countries report better collection rates, much of this is exported to nations that are less careful or able to enforce regulation.
According to the British Plastics Federation, the UK exported almost two-thirds of the plastic waste it collected in 2019, due to a lack of domestic recycling capacity.
In a somewhat colonial set-up, such exports too often result in underprivileged nations being exploited for the benefit of wealthier countries and extractive fossil fuel industries.
Exported waste often succeeds in evading inspection, and goes on to be openly dumped, burned or even traded on illegal markets. An estimated 2% of the world’s urban poor are ensnared within an unethical and exploitative informal waste management industry, being paid pennies for their exposure to dangerous objects and toxic fumes.
How can we manage plastic waste?
Education will play a fundamental role in how the plastics crisis is addressed, by helping policy-makers, corporations and individuals alike take a new look at potential solutions.
rePurpose Global’s initiative aims to demonstrate how education can be used as a tool for opening the eyes of these decision-makers to the real-world urgency of the plastics problem.
Its project will begin with a one-week pilot in September 2022, during which individuals representing organisations including Coca-Cola, the World Economic Forum and Target will visit two Indian states.
Given the influence such organisations have on plastic waste, including their direct contributions to the problem, the project will need to deliver irrefutable insights into the scale of the crisis while holding its participants to account and enabling them with actionable strategies.
Otherwise, it risks becoming an exercise in organisational box-ticking, with the added environmental consequences of transport taken to reach its destination. Whether this has been taken into account by rePurpose Global, such as by offsetting flight emissions, remains to be seen.
RePurpose Global’s approach to plastic waste management
According to Peter Wang Hjemdahl, chief advocacy officer for rePurpose Global, the project will “empower sustainability decision-makers with the knowledge they need to reduce bias in evaluating solutions, make better impact investments, and ultimately accelerate our fight against the plastic epidemic.”
The organisation currently takes a holistic approach to managing plastic, combining assessment and reduction strategies with incentives such as plastic offset credits and recognisable certifications.
Its plastics credits protocol is used to channel funding into projects across South America, Africa and Asia that are helping local communities manage their plastic waste, protect their surrounding ecosystems and develop formalised waste-picking industries to boost local economies.
This holistic approach reflects the WWF’s recommendations of applying systems thinking to the plastics problem, engaging stakeholders and decision-makers throughout the plastics value chain.
Progress is being made in several areas, including the proposal of newly defined trade regulations and major international support for a multilateral treaty in addition to ongoing technological advances.
Society’s ability to commit and collaborate will be crucial in addressing what is undoubtedly one of the most concerning crises of the modern era. Sharing one another’s knowledge, experience and expertise, we must bring our solutions together to tackle plastic pollution from all available angles.