We are drowning in plastic. Unless we change our behavior, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Solving this crisis requires us to do more than just banning plastic straws. We must adopt structural changes to our production and consumption patterns in order to move away from the extractive model of “take, make, use and dispose” toward a circular economy.
The Philippines is one of the world’s top plastic polluters. It produces 2.7 million metric tons of plastic waste annually, of which 20 percent ends up in rivers and coastal waters.
In our joint report with Ecca (Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness) Family Trust released this month, we identified the main challenges as lack of infrastructure and financing, poor public awareness, poor execution of recycling policies, and illegal dumping.
The good news is that the government is stepping up. In 2000, it passed landmark legislation for managing solid waste, though to date implementation has been weak. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is now training over 300 individuals to help local governments comply with the law, and providing financial assistance to convert open dumps into sanitary landfills.
At the city level, the municipal governments of Donsol, Sorsogon; San Isidro, Davao Oriental; and Samal have signed up for the WWF Plastic Smart Cities initiative launching in February.
These efforts are laudable, but we cannot rely on government alone. Consumer-goods companies have been struggling to rethink their plastic packaging, but an investment fund in Singapore may drive change.
Two weeks ago, investment management firm Circulate Capital closed its debut Circulate Capital Ocean Fund with a total commitment of $106 million from PepsiCo, Danone, Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company (among others).
The fund will make debt and equity investments across the entire plastics value chain — from alternative materials to waste management infrastructure to recycling technologies. It seeks to demonstrate that investments in turning plastic from waste to resource can provide attractive financial returns.
Among local communities and entrepreneurs, closed-loop circular economy initiatives are emerging. In the Philippines, for example, the Mother Earth Foundation has launched zero waste programs in four cities. It works in partnership with local governments to build material recovery facilities and runs training and education programs.
The use of Ecobricks is also gaining ground, thanks to the efforts of Circle Hostel and The Plastic Solution. Ecobricks are reusable building blocks created by packing clean used plastic into plastic bottles. These bottles have been used to build schools, homes and churches across the country.
These examples represent tangible solutions that, when scaled and connected, could move the needle on plastic waste. These questions of scale and coordination are important. And it is where networks like AVPN demonstrate their value.
We help to remove barriers by providing platforms and mechanisms that connect investors and capacity-builders with social enterprises and nonprofits that require both financial and nonfinancial resources.
The Asian Philanthropic Network Southeast Asia Summit, taking place in Bali, Indonesia in February, is one such platform. I believe there are sizeable and valuable opportunities to create a circular economy within the plastics value chain.
But at present, efforts are too fragmented and uncoordinated to have sufficient impact. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 95 percent of the material value of plastic packaging — valued at between $80 billion and $120 billion annually — is lost after a brief initial use.
If we — investors, businesses, governments and consumers — can move the plastics industry into a positive spiral of value capture, we will do an enormous service to both our oceans and our economy. A world in which plastic never becomes waste is not beyond the realm of possibility. But for it to become a reality, we need to work together.
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Naina Subberwal Batra is chair and CEO of AVPN, a unique funders’ network with over 600 members from 34 markets, headquartered in Singapore, and committed to building a vibrant and high-impact social investment community across Asia.
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