The annual campaign against consumer use of single-use plastics calls attention to one area of a complex, multifaceted issue.

It’s Plastic Free July, that time of year when social media posts and advertising campaigns remind us to avoid single-use plastics and play our part in curbing one of the planet’s most serious environmental threats. Launched by the non-profit Plastic Free Foundation in 2011, the annual campaign focuses on the agency consumers have to move the dial on everything from greenhouse gas emissions to ocean plastic pollution by simply making more conscientious daily choices: Pack the reusable water bottle! Skip the plastic produce bags at the grocery store! Say no to delivery services and all their bubble wrap!

It’s an admirable campaign that has rallied some 326 million global participants to commit to lifestyle changes. But individual action alone will not be enough to address the mammoth plastics challenge we face, which involves a web of actors, like plastic producers, mass buyers of plastic products, financiers behind plastic production, governments, recycling entities, and yes, individual consumers.

Individuals around the globe do generate ever-increasing quantities of plastic waste, especially those in the United States who went through a whopping 286 pounds of plastic per person in 2016, according to a 2020 study. Yet other research sheds light on equally important parts of this complex picture. Another study published last year, for example, found that just 100 companies are behind 90% of the world’s single-use plastic production and just 20 financial institutions fund more than half of the global production of these one-time products. Meanwhile, recycling systems, which we need more than ever to handle the global glut of plastics, are in fact riddled with flaws that result in the vast majority of plastics — even those that could, in theory, be recycled — settling in landfills, burning in incinerators or, in countries with underdeveloped waste-management systems, finding their way into our waterways. The majority of plastic leaks into waterways from just five countries in Asia, though more than a quarter of that waste originates from outside Asia. 

The Incubation Network’s Approach to the Plastics Problem

Given the complex nature of the problem, solutions to the world’s plastic challenge must be multifaceted. This belief underlies the work being done at The Incubation Network, our impact-driven initiative that sources, supports and scales holistic innovative solutions to combat plastic pollution. Run in partnership with The Circulate Initiative, a non-profit organization, The Incubation Network focuses on strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems with a diverse network of key partners engaged in different aspects of the plastics problem.

Through its annual Global Innovation Challenge, themed Future of Flexibles this year, it provides support to ventures and innovators who are rethinking the single-use business model and finding innovative ways to recycle single-use plastic. The challenge program has provided support to innovators like Greenhope, a Jakarta-based green technology company with a line of compostable and biodegradable cassava-based bioplastics; erthos, a Canada-based company that uses compostable plant-powered alternatives to plastic inputs; Novoloop, a U.S. business that transforms packaging waste into high-performance materials used in shoes, cars, homes, and more; and Plastics For Change, which is converting low-value plastic into high-value, low-cost construction material for housing in India. Members of an advisory council supporting these innovators notably included representatives of major brands like Danone, Unilever and Pepsico, whose real-world insights could guide innovators working to scale.

Addressing Social Issues

The Incubation Network also partners with other local and regional entrepreneur support organizations working to scale ventures focused on preventing plastic pollution. And it offers programming designed to advance waste management solutions while simultaneously addressing the social issues that underlie the plastics crisis. 

In countries with underdeveloped waste management systems, informal workers fill a critical gap, sorting through trash and offering rudimentary recycling services without the usual protections of more formal work. In South and Southeast Asia, women play a critical role in this shadow sector, at great risk to their health and wellbeing. The Incubation Network’s programming, like the Ocean Plastic Prevention Accelerator (OPPA) Informal Plastic Collection Innovation Challenge and upcoming cohort-focused on “Leakage and Livelihoods” aim to support innovations that address both the environmental and social side of the issue. 

The OPPA Informal Plastic Collection Innovation Challenge has been supporting 12 innovators focused on topics like improving supply chain ethics, providing digital skills to informal waste workers, and elevating the visibility of the informal sector. The upcoming Leakage and Livelihoods cohort, meanwhile, will source, support and connect organizations testing solutions and exploring pathways to scale inclusive waste management systems. Progress in this area can improve material recovery and reduce plastic leakage, while also improving livelihoods and social protections for informal waste workers — especially women and girls. 

Engagement With All Potential Change Agents

At the heart of all The Incubation Network’s programming is engagement with everyone from technical experts and investors to municipal governments, which are in a strong position to advance recycling and waste management solutions.

This sort of engagement — with innovators themselves but also with big brands, governments, and the myriad players who collectively hold the power to change systems — is truly what it takes to tackle the complex challenges the world faces.

Sarah van Boekhout, Program Manager for The Incubation Network’s Inclusive Markets team, says the program’s ability to bring together diverse actors is its great strength. 

“We have the ability to convene the experts and we bring to the table the financial and technical and community-building assistance,” she says.

While the plastics problem will not be solved overnight, solutions will be forged by bringing together the right people with exciting ideas and finding out what has potential for impact and scale.

Consumers, of course, have a role to play in this complex picture too. So, yes: Make more conscientious choices. Strive for a plastic-free July and a plastic-free future. Encourage others to do the same. In the meantime, The Incubation Network will be doing its part too — engaging with all the other groups who collectively have the power to make the dream of a plastic-free future a reality.