To mark Plastic Free July, SecondMuse's Director of Programs Laura Benns spoke with us about the state of circular plastic economies, and where she finds optimism amid the grim global plastic crisis.
Imagine a world without waste. A world in which the materials we use in our daily lives remain in circulation rather than ending up in landfills, incinerators or as pollutants contaminating the earth. Imagine a world in which economies that keep resources circulating also create better living conditions for marginalized communities and opportunities for future generations to thrive.
It’s a vision we’re working toward at SecondMuse, not only because it reflects our commitment to environmental and social justice, but because we understand the gravity of inaction.
A recent report commissioned by Google found that even though the percentage of plastic waste that ends up mismanaged is decreasing, the overall volume that ends up “incinerated, landfilled or leaked into the environment” is projected to surge from 256 million metric tonnes today to 7.7 billion metric tonnes by 2040. That’s under a “business as usual” scenario in which plastic recycled in more sustainable circular supply chains continues to increase, but still represents just a blip in the overall quantity of plastic produced.
In a “greener future scenario,” described in the report, strong policy, behavior and attitude changes drive fundamental shifts that will shrink the plastic circularity gap.
This is a scenario we’ve been working toward through programs like The Incubation Network and The Ocean Plastic Prevention Accelerator, which are catalyzing solutions to plastic pollution in South and Southeast Asia, one of the key frontlines in the global plastic pollution crisis.
To mark Plastic Free July, we invited Laura Benns, Director of Programs at SecondMuse for The Incubation Network, to share details about ongoing work to drive those fundamental shifts, her assessment of the state of plastic circularity and what drives her to keep working every day.
1. What is the state of circular plastic economies today? Reports like the one from Google paint a pretty bleak picture, but they also indicate that there is momentum toward addressing our global plastics problem. What is your assessment of where we are?
Circular economies for plastic are still an emerging phenomenon that has yet to take root in many parts of the world, but recent global movements, in particular things like the Global Plastics Treaty, numerous international conventions, and acts of legislation and regulation by country governments all point towards a positive shift in our approach towards the use of plastic waste and its management.
These actions, while still early-stage, present an opportunity for private and public sectors to collaborate in supporting innovation across the value chain to overcome common barriers faced by entrepreneurs, such as a lack of investment, training, and connections to bring their solutions to commercial scale.
2. Where do you see the biggest gap or barrier preventing our plastic economies from transitioning from linear to circular? How is The Incubation Network working to fill that gap?
We need to take a “swiss cheese” approach to plastic waste management. Backing one single solution will not be enough; we have to apply multiple strategies to mitigate the complexities or “holes” in the plastic value chain and waste management ecosystem. The Incubation Network works with innovative solutions across different stages of maturity to ensure they are inclusive by design, and we experiment and support them to scale. Building monitoring and evaluation frameworks is an important part of assessing if solutions will work and how much impact they could have given the right type of capacity-building and investment. Another area that we focus on is supporting the development of responsibly sourced supply chains for plastic.
We do this through promoting social and economic equity for the informal sector within the plastic waste management and recycling system. Programs such as Leakage and Livelihoods, and Equality in Plastics Circularity give us the opportunity to work with project partners who advocate for informal waste workers as part of their solutions to reduce plastic pollution. The informal waste workers are an integral part of the recycling system across Asia and they hold the key to helping us meet global targets for recycling in the future.
3. Amid all the grim statistics, projections and practical barriers that exist, where do you find the most hope and reason for optimism? What inspires you in this space?
The high levels of energy and action in the entrepreneurial ecosystems across our target markets — India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — tells us that there is huge potential to harness in the communities that are primed for change. With more innovative ideas targeting specific challenges in the plastics recycling and waste management systems, we have a better chance of identifying solutions that can create real impact and change towards a circular plastic economy.
We’re also seeing actors across the system coming together to address these challenges at a system level, so we have a lot to be excited about. One of our latest programs, The SUP Challenge, is working with a total of 75 innovative startups across five countries, aiming to address single-use plastics in the Food & Beverage sector. These startups are partnering with local businesses to pilot their solutions in live market settings, which will give us a huge insight into what types of solutions are looking promising and why. This is a great motivation for us at The Incubation Network, and our ecosystem development efforts are poised to help these entrepreneurs further develop their scalable solutions so they can be implemented in local markets.