- Governments and companies have signed pledges and bans to limit plastic waste
- Recycled packaging could eventually supplant virgin plastic production
- Innovative waste-management systems work to transform pollution into added value
- Recent studies offer sustainable alternatives to help break down existing waste
As an increasing number of countries ban single-use plastics, waste remains a significant environmental issue – although a variety of initiatives promise to make emerging markets the focus of the global struggle against plastic waste.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw a decline in plastic usage; however, it led to an increase in littering from personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics. Additionally, much of this waste is disposed of unsustainably, ending up either incinerated or stored in landfill, the third-largest source of methane emissions globally.
According to OECD figures, only about 9% of the global volume of plastics was recycled in 2019, and 22% was mismanaged.
An outsized portion of mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) ends up in emerging markets due to both inadequate waste-management infrastructure and an influx of waste imports from mature economies. India and China are each estimated to account for 20% of the global volume of MPW.
Tackling waste at the source
Plastics account for an estimated 3.4% of greenhouse gas emissions during their lifecycle, 90% of which are produced during manufacturing. Finding ways to decarbonise plastics production could significantly reduce their environmental impact.
According to a May 2022 report from the research firm BloombergNEF, an extra $759bn in investment could make petrochemical production net zero by 2050. This, in turn, would reduce the 2% of global emissions that come from the production of high-value chemicals, a key component in the manufacturing of plastics and other goods.
Demand for recycled materials has also grown in recent years, with consultancy McKinsey reporting high-quality recycled plastics gained a premium of 60% over virgin plastics in the past decade.
Top corporate plastic producers such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and PepsiCo are part of an Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiative to achieve 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Coca-Cola says their figure is currently at 90%, while the foundation’s Global Commitment 2022 report had Coca-Cola’s figure at just short of 100%.
In addition to corporate action, governments have begun to focus on international efforts to limit plastic production and pollution. At the March 2022 UN Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, 175 countries pledged to negotiate a legally binding agreement limiting the proliferation of plastics and focusing on recycling, sustainable packaging and limiting virgin plastics production by as early as 2024.
On a national level, Kenya pioneered a strict plastic bag ban in 2018, followed by a total ban of single-use plastics in protected areas implemented in 2020. A significant reduction in usage was seen in the wake of the ban, with ownership of reusable bags tripling, although more work remains to be done in the management of existing waste.
Sustainable waste management
Given the volume of MPW present in many parts of the world, expanding recycling and waste-management infrastructure in emerging markets presents a sizeable opportunity for value addition.
The “2022 Africa Waste Management Outlook” published by the UN Environment Programme estimated that $8bn in municipal solid waste is generated in African cities annually, with $7.6bn of its value lost due to its improper disposal, primarily in open landfill.
The circular economy generates value from items that would otherwise end up in landfill. The Manila-based start-up Humble Sustainability processes excess inventory from e-commerce and retail companies that would normally end up disposed and resells it via its storefront, or passes the inventory on to its partners in its business-to-business network.
Humble recently raised $750,000 in an oversubscribed seed round led by Seedstars International Ventures, and the start-up plans to use the funds to hire staff and expand its partner network.
The business model of Nigeria’s Soso Care aims to tackle both waste management and health care access in a country where 23% of the population has health insurance. The health-tech company accepts recyclable waste such as scrap metal, plastic or car batteries in exchange for health coverage.
Multiple emerging economies are seeking to reduce the inflow of trash from other countries, as they often lack the infrastructure to process it safely or sustainably.
Following the example of Vietnam and Malaysia, Thailand announced plans to ban imports of plastic waste by 2025.
Countries in South-east Asia had become a prominent destination for waste exports from mature economies after China, previously the recipient of roughly 50% of the world’s plastic waste, banned such imports under its National Sword initiative in 2017.
Other efforts focus on the sustainable collection of mismanaged waste. In Panama, a water wheel installed by environmental group Marea Verde helps collect trash from the Juan Díaz River, which runs through Panama City. The wheel, which aims to collect trash before it reaches the sea, is powered by a mix of hydraulic and solar energy.
Such efforts could prove essential in combatting marine plastic pollution in emerging markets, with a July 2020 study by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ reporting that the volume of plastics in oceans could quadruple by 2040.
In lieu of replacing single-use items with a more sustainable material, finding novel ways to break down trash presents another waste-management solution.
A 2021 study found that microbes are evolving to digest plastics, and research into the enzymes they use could help scientists unlock more sustainable ways to process waste.
In 2022 France’s Carbios entered the industrial phase for its enzymatic recycling technology; its eventual recycling capacity expected to exceed 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year.
Another study found that superworms, the larvae of the darkling beetle, could survive on a diet of styrofoam, presenting an opportunity for companies to use insects to help break down trash.
Solid waste is also being considered as an alternative fuel source. One cement plant in South Korea fuels its operations in part using synthetic resin waste from discarded plastics, allowing it to cut its coal usage by 30% and lower its overall emissions by 3.3% since 2018.