Making a Dent: Plastic Waste and Circular Economies


By Alex Oprunenco

Plastics waste and pollution is no small thing. It’s a global challenge against which traditional efforts have proven wholly inadequate. A new UNDP and Alberta Energy initiative is exploring how a different way of thinking, informed by systemic design, and spanning two continents, might be able to accelerate progress on the waste “epidemic.”

A new public challenge…

It is hard to imagine our world today functioning without plastics — a unique material that plays a critical role in maintaining food quality, health and safety. Yet now, plastics are at the epicenter of a growing public outcry. The growth of plastic waste and its subsequent (mis)management has led to a ban on the import of waste for recycling and single-use plastics throughout Asia.

While this represents a clear signal to address the negative impacts of plastics, the trade-offs remain complex. Plastics are convenient and cheap to produce, embedded in cross-continental production, distribution and trade. With the global demand for plastics estimated to quadruple from 2020 to 2050, one thing is clear, there is no silver bullet solution. The path forward will require changes: R&D on alternative materials, a shift in consumption patterns and mindsets, reforms in waste management, new technologies for recycling, and ultimately new growth models

…an uneven distribution

Even now, we have strong examples of efforts aiming to make a dent on this challenge from all sides: policy, technology or corporate regulation levels. However, progress is often slow and trickles down unevenly with many innovative solutions in nascent stages. This is partly because action needs to be comprehensive and take place at multiple levels — not only the national government level or corporations, but also at local government, industry, and local scales.

From the perspective of bureaucratic institutions, this poses a conundrum for solutions that can’t fit neatly into a traditional sector or practice. Also, while plastics pollution is an increasingly global issue, global thinking often needs to be much more local in its application. For example, island states like Maldives or Solomon Islands might require different approaches from India or Vietnam. Lastly, urgency is unevenly distributed, with some jurisdictions and regions experiencing the impacts of the issues more acutely than others.

“In the 1950s the world made about 2m tonnes of plastic a year. Now that figure is 330m tonnes a year — and it is set to triple again by 2050.”

To understand “the coming storm” that is plastics and waste, you need only to look at Asia today. The region’s share in plastic production and consumption is growing, and if current economic growth and consumption patterns are any indication of what’s to come, then banning all plastic bags and single-use packaging would be a good start, but we need to go way beyond that. Already now, almost half of all plastic produced globally originates from Asia. At the same time, the region is responsible for over 80% of plastic waste ending up into our oceans. This scale, urgency and pace of this problem in Asia is an omen of the things to come globally. But, can the region become a “hotbed” of innovation that will inform solutions in other parts of the world?

Mythbusting 1: Pursuing the “magic bullet”

The response from the governments and development organisations on the ground has often been scattered. The political pressure to act has often driven towards “magic bullets” and single point solutions: applying behavioral insights to nudge consumers away from plastic; engaging citizens in reporting illegal waste dumps; developing waste banks; and supporting start-up technology innovations. While demonstrating a varying degree of success, they have one thing in common–they’re all singular, discrete interventions intended to fix a complex system. Time and again, those working on the ground have said, “You can improve segregation of the waste as much as you want but with the projected pace of waste generation, we perhaps will never acquire sufficient recycling/repurposing capabilities.”

Mythbusting 2: Plastics Pollution is an Asian problem

Top plastics waste exporters must also increasingly consider their role and responsibilities to clean up the production of and trade in plastics currently flooding Asia. For example, about 12 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is shipped out of North America to be ‘recycled.’ The majority of this exported plastic waste is sent to countries in Southeast Asia, many of which do not have the proper management infrastructure. The result is plastics either being incinerated or entering the environment.

North American and European countries specifically have been sending waste Asia for decades, but many countries, like China, are now refusing it. Developments like these also present emerging risks and opportunities for international companies in the plastics sectors who have a critical role in transforming the way we produce and use plastics. They also shed a light on how truly interconnect the challenge is. In short, plastics waste in not an isolated problem we can keep contained to one jurisdiction.

An Unexpected Journey: From Asia to Canada and Beyond

The time seems ripe for multiple points in the value chain to work together. To this end, the UNDP Regional Innovation Center in Asia and the Pacific and Alberta CoLab, a Canadian public sector innovation lab, joined hands to design a knowledge exchange across two continents — Asia and North America aimed at accelerating learnings on both sides of the Pacific. The intent is to ask and explore, “What if we could design a system where plastics never become waste, what would it take achieve that?” Four jurisdictions will launch this project in Asia (Vietnam, Maldives, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka), which will run concurrently with a strategic research initiative in Alberta, Canada.

A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. This means that materials constantly flow in a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.

This yearlong partnership has four stages (as per image below). The aim is to explore the potential of circular strategies, establish a portfolio of solutions to test and then scale. System design principles will inform the work across the 2 continents — different leverage points will be tested simultaneously in order to accelerate learning, prevent the “magic bullet” trap and allow for a deeper, integrated understanding of how local and international systems work together. Placing the Asia challenge into the larger global picture will allow for both the upstream and downstream parts of the plastic value chain to be explored and challenged. A process of sensemaking will be applied across geographical locations so that patterns are identified, and adjustments are implemented accordingly.

Our partnership will compliment this work by placing the Asian challenge into a larger global context to gain perspectives on the challenges and opportunities for circular strategies that can be applied various points of value chain.

Our partnership will compliment this work by placing the Asian challenge into a larger global context to gain perspectives on the challenges and opportunities for circular strategies that can be applied various points of value chain.

Moreover, an international partnership will aide in facilitating the opportunity to experiment with, and potentially scale solutions across regions while embracing local context. We kick-off this month in Vietnam and Maldives with inaugural ethnographic research and systemic design workshops. The Philippines and Sri Lanka will take-off in March 2020.

I would like to thank Keren Perla, Director of Alberta CoLab, for her valuable inputs into this blog.

Alex Oprunenco leads several cross cutting initiatives on future of government and application of system-based approaches in development with the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre. You can see more on Twitter at @ricap_undp and @AlexOprunenco



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.