Addressing Ocean Plastic Pollution: Three Key Insights from The Incubation Network - SecondMuse

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    SecondMuse, along with our main partner, The Circulate Initiative, is proud to successfully conclude this three-year initiative to enable and uplift the plastic waste innovation ecosystem in South and Southeast Asia with the support of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Circulate Capital, ECCA Family Foundation, Global Affairs Canada, and other funders.

    Ocean plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues we are currently facing. According to research, plastic waste contributes to 80 percent of all marine pollution, and an alarming 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastics end up in the ocean each year. 

    One of our flagship initiatives, The Incubation Network, worked to address this issue in South and Southeast Asia and, additionally, to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable groups in waste management and recycling systems. This initiative brought together key partners and stakeholders to tackle the critical barriers in the region to address plastic leakage and advance a circular economy. 

    SecondMuse, along with our main partner, The Circulate Initiative, is proud to successfully conclude this three-year initiative to enable and uplift the plastic waste innovation ecosystem in South and Southeast Asia with the support of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Circulate Capital, ECCA Family Foundation, Global Affairs Canada, and other funders.

    Our early goals for The Incubation Network included building a network and supporting partnerships between civil society and private sector actors across the region to deliver solutions to tackle plastic waste and support the informal waste sector. From 2019 to 2022, The Incubation Network developed a robust ecosystem of solutions to build improved and inclusive waste management and recycling systems addressing the plastic pollution challenge across South and Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, the Ocean Plastic Prevention Accelerator ran as a program alongside The Incubation Network to engage the local waste ecosystem more closely.

    Over the past three years, our team has been developing and implementing programs that drive innovation, investment, and inclusivity to better the waste system in the region. And out of the many issues we tried to address, our insights revealed that the programs we created significantly impacted three areas: informal waste management, upstream innovations, and small-medium enterprises.

    Supporting Informal Waste Workers

    The first insight involves running programs that work with informal waste workers to decrease the rate of plastic pollution while also creating economic opportunities. The objective is to transform the roles of these workers and provide better working conditions. 

    When it comes to plastic waste in Asia, over 95% of some types of plastics recovered for recycling are contributed by informal workers – with women making up the majority in countries like Vietnam and India. They collect and sort waste from municipal waste, dumpsites, and landfills, picking out recyclable materials that would otherwise end up in landfills or pollute the environment. 

    Despite their crucial role, they are often marginalized and overlooked, leading to many problems, including hazardous working conditions, poor compensation, and lack of access to social protection, formal markets, and support services. Recognizing and supporting these workers is essential to reducing waste and promoting a circular economy.

    “Waste workers are frontline environmental stewards, with an intimate knowledge of what works,” as Sarah van Boekhout, Program Manager of Inclusive Markets, reflected, “So we need these critical players in the waste management ecosystem to have a seat at the table where any private sector innovation is concerned, as well as in major policy discussions, such as the negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.” 

    Our work with Saahas Zero Waste, a socio-environmental enterprise in India, illustrates the importance of this effort. Through our tailored programming, the company successfully scaled the operational capacity of its dry waste collection center by 47%, increasing its plastic collection rate by 76% and raising 24% of its staff income. 

    Piloting Upstream Solutions 

    The second area of focus is to stem the flow of plastic pollution by tackling it at the source. Known as the “upstream solutions”, we aim to reduce the need to create virgin plastics in the first place by encouraging reuse and sustainable alternatives. 

    Of the almost 400 solutions The Incubation Network has worked with over the years, a third of them have been upstream solutions. These upstream solutions come with their challenges. To truly replace traditional plastics, alternative plastic options must be affordable, convenient, and practical. Certain startups also face difficulties balancing the carbon footprint that comes with importing materials and exporting products. Startups have also struggled to meet the expected volumes from F&B partners as demand grows from corporates and chain businesses. Thus, industry leaders’ stronger support and investment are needed to overcome the challenges of ecological footprints and production and infrastructure issues.

    The Incubation Network organized The Single-Use Plastic (SUP) Challenge to support partnerships for 76 startups with 60 Food & Beverage (F&B) partners last year to pilot the upstream solutions. Through The SUP Challenge, we have witnessed successes with the companies that we ran pilots with, such as Plépah and Biopac from Indonesia, which secured repeat orders with F&B partners after the pilot. Broccoli Revolution and GoodFoodLoop in Thailand even went beyond that, not only trialing new packaging through the pilot, but also co-developing new meal subscription plans to encourage reuse behavior. One key factor to these companies’ successes is their ability to respond swiftly to challenges. This may involve investing in hardware to ensure product-market fit, engaging partners early on in co-designing, providing education, or even reverse-engineering the product and process.

    Recognizing the Real Potential of SMEs for Plastic Waste

    Lastly, we collaborate with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that provide waste management and recycling services, supporting them in scaling their waste management and alternative plastic businesses.

    Despite making up the majority of any industry, SMEs have been largely overlooked by investors and incubation programs in plastic reduction efforts. Much of the focus has primarily been on large corporations due to the scale and potential of rapid growth. In reality, because of their size, most SMEs are more flexible and innovative than larger corporations, and can be more responsive to changing consumer demands for sustainable products. The Incubation Network team learned this while running programs on the ground and quickly pivoted their strategies to cater SMEs, a largely untapped resource in solving the issue.

    The strong collaboration with SMEs like the Surabaya Central Waste Bank in Indonesia has resulted in an improved waste management infrastructure and increased automation to improve traceability in waste flows. This also helps SMEs to pivot to greener business models, such as the work of Nam Nai Hong, who replaced virgin material in their Nameco product line with recycled plastics and diversified their business model by expanding their product offerings. 

    Celebrating The Outcome and Impact of Three Years of Work

    After three years of running different programs, The Incubation Network has supported 358 unique startups and entrepreneurs across the plastics value chain and enabled program participants to divert close to 148,000 tonnes of plastic waste since 2020. In addition, we provided US$2.8 million dollars of funding and dedicated 1,300 hours of mentorship from experts in our network, leading to our alumni companies raising a collective US$63 million dollars after receiving support from the programs.

    Moving forward, we will continue to work closely with other key players in the plastic waste ecosystem to drive systems change and establish more inclusive and equitable practices for a socially responsible recycled plastics supply chain.

    Learn more about The Incubation Network’s impact and case studies on its latest impact report, Making Waves 2022 with The Incubation Network.