Comment: Plastics For Change’s Andrew Almack argues that companies can help tackle poverty and pollution by sourcing plastic from the 15 million informal waste workers who are the backbone of the recycling sector in emerging economies like India
The Covid-19 crisis has provided brands with a rare opportunity to reset their supply chain strategy and create a plan for achieving their recycling goals. Plastic waste is a concern for many businesses, especially in the packaging industry, where “branded litter” flows into ocean-bound waterways at an unprecedented rate of almost a truckload per minute.
With fossil fuel-based plastics at record low prices, it’s easy for brands to give in to the temptation to use virgin material and forgo their recycling goals. However, with growing pressure from consumers and regulatory bodies, brands that seize the moment and take measurable steps towards a circular economy will be rewarded.
While many brands have made far-reaching sustainability commitments, few have taken steps towards this. A study by the Ellen MacArthur foundation shows that none of the top 10 FMCG companies has 10% in recycled content. If plastic production and use continue to grow at the current pace, greenhouse gas emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030, the same amount released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Covid-19 has further intensified this, with plastic use becoming necessary due to its presence in medical gear and personal protective equipment.
The national lockdowns saw waste pickers lose their livelihoods abruptly, placing their families and themselves at risk of starvation
While it may be difficult to believe that an invisible microbe has been able to shut down entire nations over the last few months, the dangerous reality is that another invisible micron – microplastics – has already begun wreaking havoc on human health and the environment. It has entered our blood streams and will worsen its impact on generations ahead, not to mention the devastating effects it is already having on sea life, with Arctic ice reportedly containing an average of 1,760 microplastic particles per litre.
The company that I founded, Plastics for Change, is a for-profit social enterprise that is working with informal waste pickers in India to help companies like The Body Shop integrate recovered plastic waste into their products. (See also From Untouchables to plastic waste entrepreneurs)
Globally, some 15 million informal waste workers at the base of the supply chain serve as the backbone of the recycling sector in emerging economies. These informal economies are highly unregulated and often provide unpredictable livelihoods for its players like waste pickers, who are among the most marginalised communities in the world. Here in India, they provide an essential service to society and yet are regularly exploited and entrenched in poverty. The sector lacks transparency and so brands rarely have any insight into the activities at the base of their supply chains.
The pandemic has hit these economies hard and has crippled the market for recycled plastic. Being daily wage workers, the national lockdowns saw waste pickers lose their livelihoods abruptly, placing their families and themselves at risk of starvation. Many in these communities have little to no access to social security due to a lack of documentation, which also prevents them from obtaining any relief that the government has offered. Our own surveys showed more than 30% of these communities are lacking necessary IDs. Even as there appears to be a relaxation in lockdown restrictions, their health and safety remains at risk as there is little infrastructure development in these systems.
While charities and other organisations – including our own – have been active in supporting these communities, any long-term solution is tied to them regaining and improving their livelihoods through trade. This starts by creating demand for recycled plastic from responsible supply chains.
Governments have recognised the need to expand regulatory enforcement with extended producer responsibility laws. The UK recently revealed that the plastic packaging tax will see companies paying £200 per tonne of packaging made from less than 30% recycled plastic from April 2022. The tax was created to encourage the use of more recycled plastic. Brands that take action now will avoid paying hefty penalties into the future as regulations get increasingly strict to mitigate the plastic pollution crisis.
With virgin plastic getting cheaper, achieving recycling commitments will require leaders to plan for long-term success, not short-term cost savings
However, making the transition towards increased use of recycled plastic is a major challenge for both brands and manufacturers.
With virgin plastic getting cheaper, achieving recycling commitments will require leaders to plan for long-term success, not short-term cost savings. Furthermore, sourcing consistently high-quality recycled plastic is a major challenge for procurement managers. This, coupled with the challenge of ensuring ethical business practices when working with the informal sector, only increases the reluctance of brands.
It will take innovation and working with the recyclers at the base of their supply chains for brands to achieve their recycling targets. This may require a paradigm shift in how brands approach the process, as hardly any are involved in the full length of their supply chains, specifically where the recycling actually happens. But it will build towards a better future for everyone - something that we desperately need.
Andrew Almack is founder and CEO of Plastics for Change