Two billion people across the globe lack access to waste management. “Producers should play a bigger role in the recovery and reuse of plastic waste,” says WasteAid Network Director Michelle Wilson.
Plastic pollution is a global problem, and a particularly pressing issue in developing countries, where consumption is growing but waste management systems are lacking.
The facts are daunting.
Plastic pollution harms animals, shrinks biodiversity and even contributes to climate change. It’s also a public health hazard: dumped waste blocks drainage and waterways causing floods, and the open burning of household waste pollutes air. Agricultural, fishing and tourism livelihoods suffer.
"Corporations are very efficient at getting their products out there but not so good at recovering the waste."
The UK-based charity organization WasteAid combats these problems by educating people on solid waste management and supporting the creation of circular economy solutions in developing communities.
According to Ray Georgeson, co-founding trustee of the international charity, waste disposal must be turned into resource management to create a circular economy.
Network Director Michelle Wilson encourages producers of plastic packaging to take responsibility and contribute to the cost of recovery and reuse of plastic waste in emerging markets.
To change behavior, financial incentives for circularity are needed
WasteAid educates people on how waste can be turned into a resource in some of the world’s poorest places.
"Attitudes regarding waste must change. The value of waste isn’t seen on a household level, and governments in developing nations lack waste management expertise," Georgeson says.
Even in international development aid, waste management is not a priority.
However, attitudes or unawareness are not the only issues, Wilson points out.
States struggle to deal with the sheer volume of waste with their already stretched public finances.
In turn poor communities lack the simple infrastructure to segregate waste, and, perhaps counterintuitively, poverty can even create more waste. Packaging is a case in point.
"Localized inequalities come down to mundane details, such as people frequently buying small plastic sachets of sugar and washing powder because they can’t afford buying in bulk," Wilson explains, but this single-use packaging is made of non-recyclable materials and contributes massively to the levels of plastic waste in our rivers and seas.
"To put awareness into practice and change behavior among consumers, there must be clear incentives to motivate action."
Instead of the government, companies should be responsible for handling waste
Wilson and Georgeson describe plastic packaging as a double-edged sword: Overall, food packaging has a positive role in waste management because it reduces food waste and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. Packaging keeps food safe and healthy.
However, food and beverage packaging play a big role in plastic pollution in developing countries.
"Corporations are very efficient at getting their products out to market but not so good at recovering that waste. We’ve all bought into the idea that the state is responsible for handling waste. In our view, this responsibility needs to shift to the corporates, firstly designing waste and pollution out of their products and secondly where there is waste, they need to be responsible for the costs involved in its recovery or disposal."
There is another factor to consider. Recyclable materials, for example, won’t solve the problem if there’s no infrastructure or local market for the recycled material. Solutions for reducing and recycling waste must be holistic and collective, and always localized.
The goal is to eliminate waste through circularity
While the need for waste management systems is urgent in developing communities, circularity and the elimination of waste are the ultimate goals across the world.
To this end, WasteAid has piloted a program in The Gambia where plastic waste is turned into paving and roof tiles, and launched a zero waste initiative in Kenya aiming to upcycle waste.
"Recycling models where plastic waste is collected and processed into tiles can prevent millions of plastic bags from ending up in the ocean – but the 'circulation' ends in the bricks being used in construction, so it’s essentially still a linear model," Georgeson points out.
The work towards finding pure circular solutions continues.
In May 2020, WasteAid and Huhtamaki launched a partnership that will drive community-level circular economy innovation in India, South Africa and Vietnam. Led by Wilson, the two-year program aims to develop business ideas and create end-markets for recyclable materials, developing a new generation of green entrepreneurs locally.
"The project will provide a springboard for innovative and sustainable grassroots initiatives that can be scaled up and replicated throughout the world," Wilson says.