As more countries ban single-use plastics, waste remains a significant environmental concern — although a variety of initiatives promise to put emerging markets at the heart of the global fight against plastic waste. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a drop in plastic consumption; however, it has led to an increase in littering from personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics. Additionally, much of this waste is unsustainably disposed of and ends up either incinerated or in landfill, the third largest source of methane emissions globally.
According to OECD figures, only about 9% of the world’s plastic was recycled in 2019, and 22% was mismanaged.
An outsized portion of mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) ends up in emerging markets, both due to inadequate waste management infrastructure and an influx of waste imports from mature economies. India and China are estimated to each account for 20% of global MPW volume.
Fight waste at source
Plastics are estimated to be responsible for 3.4% of greenhouse gas emissions over their life cycle, 90% of which occur during manufacturing. Finding ways to decarbonize plastic production could significantly reduce its environmental impact.
According to a May 2022 report by research firm BloombergNEF, $759 billion in additional investment could take petrochemical production to zero by 2050. This, in turn, would reduce the 2% of global emissions that come from the production of value-added chemicals, a key component in the manufacture of plastics and other goods.
Demand for recycled materials has also increased in recent years, with consultancy McKinsey reporting that high-quality recycled plastics have achieved a 60% premium over virgin plastics over the past decade.
Leading plastics manufacturers from companies like Coca-Cola, Walmart and PepsiCo are part of an Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiative to achieve 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Coca-Cola says their number is currently at 90%, while the Foundation’s global Commitment 2022 report had Coca-Cola’s number at just under 100%.
In addition to corporate action, governments have begun to focus on international efforts to limit plastic production and pollution. At the UN Environment Assembly meeting in March 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya, 175 countries pledged to negotiate a legally binding agreement by 2024 that limits the spread of plastics and focuses on recycling, sustainable packaging and limiting the production of virgin plastics.
At the national level, Kenya pioneered a strict ban on plastic bags in 2018, followed by a total ban on single-use plastics in protected areas, implemented in 2020. In the wake of the ban, there has been a significant reduction in consumption, with ownership of reusable sacks increasing by three times, although much remains to be done in the management of existing waste.
Sustainable waste management
Given the amount of MPW present in many parts of the world, expanding recycling and waste management infrastructure in emerging markets presents a significant opportunity for value creation.
As OBG wrote in September 2020, The plastic waste problem encountered in the manufacture of PPE during the Covid-19 pandemic offers opportunities for innovation in recycling.
The 2022 Africa Waste Management Outlook published by the UN Environment Program estimates that $8 billion in municipal waste is generated annually in African cities, with $7.6 billion lost in value due to improper disposal, primarily in open litter landfills.
The circular economy generates value from items that would otherwise end up in landfill. Manila-based start-up Humble Sustainability processes excess inventory from e-commerce and retail businesses that would normally be discarded and resells it through its storefront or shares the inventory with its partners in its business-to-business network.
Humble recently raised $750,000 in an oversubscribed seed round led by Seedstars International Ventures, and the startup plans to use the funds to hire staff and expand its partner network.
Nigeria’s Soso Care’s business model aims to tackle both waste management and access to healthcare in a country where 23% of the population has health insurance. The health tech company accepts recyclable waste such as scrap metal, plastic or car batteries in exchange for health insurance.
Several emerging economies are attempting to reduce the flow of waste from other countries, often lacking the infrastructure to process it safely or sustainably.
Following the lead of Vietnam and Malaysia, Thailand announced plans to ban imports of plastic waste by 2025.
Countries in Southeast Asia had become a major destination for waste exports from mature economies after China, previously the recipient of about 50% of the world’s plastic waste, banned such imports as part of its National Sword initiative in 2017.
Other efforts focus on the sustainable collection of improperly disposed waste. In Panama, a water wheel installed by environmental organization Marea Verde helps collect trash from the Juan Díaz River, which flows through Panama City. The wheel, designed to collect rubbish before it reaches the sea, is powered by a mix of hydraulic and solar power.
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Such efforts could prove essential Tackling marine plastic pollution in emerging marketswith a July 2020 study by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ reporting that the amount of plastic in the oceans could quadruple by 2040.
Rather than replacing single-use items with a more sustainable material, finding new ways to decompose trash offers another waste management solution.
A 2021 study found that microbes are evolving to digest plastics, and studying the enzymes they use could help scientists discover more sustainable ways to process waste.
In 2022, the French company Carbios entered the industrial phase for its enzymatic recycling technology; Ultimate recycling capacity is expected to exceed 50,000 tons of plastic waste per year.
Another study found that superworms, the larvae of the dark beetle, could survive on a Styrofoam diet, giving companies the opportunity to use insects to break down trash.
Solid waste is also being considered as an alternative fuel source. A cement plant in South Korea partially fuels its operations with resin waste from discarded plastics, reducing its coal use by 30% and its overall emissions by 3.3% since 2018.
Through Oxford Business Group
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