How can development cooperation address ocean plastic pollution?

23 January 2018

In the first weeks of 2018 there were (for me) unexpected announcements from both the EU and the UK Government on the urgent global issue of ocean plastic pollution. The EU intends to make all plastic packaging on the European market recyclable by 2030 and in her speech announcing the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan, Prime Minister Theresa May committed the UK to eliminating all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. The Prime Minister also said it would direct UK aid to help developing nations reduce plastic waste, which could indicate a new direction for the UK’s and other countries’ aid programmes.

Plastic and other waste burning in the open while children look on in a refugee camp in the DRC.

Open burning of plastic and other waste (pictured above in Kibati camp, Democratic Republic of the Congo) is a serious concern for human health and contributes to climate change.

Tackling growing amounts of plastics waste in developing countries and implementing solutions to prevent plastics leaking into the oceans will not be an easy feat. The situation in every country is different and a one size fits all approach is not likely to be effective. Instead, each country will require a custom made approach to address country-specific issues. I think there are seven principles and approaches that will be key to success:

1. Solving ocean plastic pollution requires land-based solutions

Plastic waste needs to be stopped before it enters the ocean. Coastal clean-up actions around beaches and seashores, where plastic is affecting livelihoods and health of subsistence fishing communities and coastal ecosystems are part of a strategy. They provide good material for awareness raising and visibility in the media, but the main focus needs to address mismanagement of waste onshore.

2. Interventions and solutions are required on multiple levels with multiple stakeholders

These range from local bottom-up community initiatives to national-level government strategies on plastic pollution. Aid programmes need to be designed to involve stakeholders from across various levels to co-design solutions and ensure ownership by the stakeholders. Cities and municipal government waste management departments obviously play a crucial role. Involvement of non-traditional stakeholders in development cooperation, such as retailers and supermarkets, which are major sources of plastic waste and packaging, can be a promising approach. Other important stakeholders are local businesses and entrepreneurs with functioning models of how to deal with plastic waste and market innovative new products.

3. Programmes need to consider social issues and take a “people first” approach

Interventions need to be designed to address issues of poverty and inequality, and increase health and well-being of citizens. We have previously highlighted the plight and contribution of waste pickers to closing the plastic waste loop. Improving livelihoods of waste pickers and extending waste collection to the two billion people who currently do not have access to this basic service is an urgent task for international development.

4. The transfer of new technologies for modern waste collection services, separation, recycling and sanitary landfilling is crucial

However, one needs to be careful with technical solutions that promise a quick fix of the problem. In particular waste incinerators, also called waste-to-energy solutions, as these can be expensive pitfalls for municipal governments in middle income countries. Many incinerator projects in middle income countries are controversial and cause for protests and social unrest. Pollution control equipment is expensive and often not used, therefore incinerators can cause local air pollution, contributing to already worsening air quality in many cities. They also compete for high calorific plastics that could be recycled instead, rather than burned. The large investments needed for incinerators can be spent more effectively on alternative solutions in line with circular thinking, as highlighted in this Tearfund report.

5. Adopting a life cycle approach is crucial to long-term success

For any plastic waste strategy to be successful in the long term, end of pipe solutions alone are not sufficient and will require changes in the way societies use plastic. Citizen-led initiatives and innovative concepts around zero-waste cities, addressing consumer behaviour and changing social norms around single plastic usage are crucial.

6. Understand and build on existing solutions

In many countries and cities, action is already taking place. For instance, many developing countries have in place deposit schemes and take-back systems for glass bottles or jars. These can be extended to also cover plastic bottles. Working with local stakeholders and communities which apply innovative solutions and develop new businesses around plastic waste is an approach the UK charity WasteAid has championed. Another example is the social enterprise Protoprint, which partnered with SWaCH, a cooperative in Pune, India wholly owned by waste pickers, producing filament for 3D printing from recycled plastics. Digital technologies also offer new solutions to plastic waste reduction, for example applications for plastics tracking and Blockchain applications for new payment systems for plastics recycling.

7. Align programmes for tackling ocean plastics with the SDGs and climate change mitigation

Reducing plastic pollution will be important for a number of targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, not only Goal 14 on “Life Below Water”, but also Goal 3 on “Good Health and Well-Being”, Goal 11 “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, Goal 12 “Responsible Consumption and Production” and Goal 13 “Climate Action”. Unmanaged waste and open burning is a significant source of black carbon and greenhouse gases, not to mention local air pollution and the associated health impacts. Including plastics in these existing programmes is important as plastic waste is not a stand-alone issue, but connected to wider environmental and developmental challenges that we all need to address.

Photo credit: Oxfam East Africa (Burning waste), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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