Much has been written about the plastic waste crisis in Asia. Discussions on solutions tend to focus on technology, infrastructure, economic and environmental aspects. A recent panel Q&A discussion, moderated by CAPP.Global cofounder Rob Steir, suggests that this approach may be missing an important point, namely that for any solution to be a success it must have the support of the people involved. Simply put: Without engagement, there is no solution.
CAPP.Global, an initiative operating under the auspices of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, organises student team competitions called “Make the Case”, which are designed to identify programmes and innovations that have proven effective at reducing or eliminating plastic waste and have the potential to be scaled. The focus is emphatically not on new start-up concepts. The panel discussion in question was intended to highlight the ‘Make the Case’ competitions and at the same time, offer insight into highly-effective solutions currently being implemented to solve Asia’s significant plastic waste problem. Questions from moderator Rob Steir served to guide the discussion.
The insights that emerged were, in fact, of a completely different order. Instead of looking at possible solutions, the panellists took a step back and approached the problem from a more fundamental starting point. What needs to happen in order for Asia, and for most of the world, to tackle the plastic waste problem effectively? Why do most solutions fall short? How is it possible that millions of tonnes of plastic continue to enter the ocean each and every year, although no one anywhere wants this to happen?
Trust and Ownership
The first insight came with the realisation that progress would not come without a change in the mindset of the local population facing the problem of plastic waste. Such a change would only be possible by gaining the trust of the people most involved. How?
First, by taking action, according to the panellists, to continually clean up waterways in a local area. Pollution inspires more pollution, while clean waters create a disincentive for pollution, bringing pride to protecting the clean waters once cleaned. Setting up a boom, net, or catchment device at regular intervals along that waterway to catch the waste and monitoring these areas, and removing waste on a daily, weekly or regular basis, will ensure the surface water downstream from each intervention point is clean. The result: an ongoing program that cleans local waterways due to the efforts of the local government, with the active involvement of the community. Second, the root causes and sources of the plastic waste in the area must be identified and solutions for their prevention, avoidance, and further pollution abatement enacted, over time. An essential next step is to get the young people of the community involved for a real, ongoing, and measurable impact. And last, communicate the metrics to the community to build an understanding of how these efforts make a difference. Only if people see the results will they start to care. And if they care, they will also be willing to take ownership of the problem and take part in the new solutions and plastic waste reduction policies offered.
To that end, achievable goals and ‘small wins’ are vital. One example of a small win was provided by panellist Nikhilesh Paliath, who shared how the organisers of an annual large event in one location in India, with thousands of attendees, exponentially reduced plastic waste for four consecutive years. By sharing their story with the local community – building trust - and engaging event participants in zero-waste efforts while at the event, the organisers were able to achieve even better results. Such ‘small wins’ enable local residents to receive the proverbial pat on the back that is sorely missing in today’s local and global world, the panellists noted. Trust and ownership can provide a foundation for truly impactful change.
Making change happen
The panellists, while sceptical that decisive action would be taken to alter the current approach to the problem of plastic waste pollution in Asia, also pointed out that it wasn’t just an ‘Asia’ problem. They also did not think that multi-governmental organisations could regulate and enact the effective laws needed, to change the predicted gap in 2040 between new plastic used and the amount that is recycled or repurposed. They decried the sheer amount of waste they see around Asia but believe that a local approach with the steps described above could result in some positive changes being made.
Yet while the solution indeed needs to be tackled at the local level, funding must be provided at the country level. As Steir concluded: “Imagine if the governments of Asia cumulatively committed, to start, as much as USD $500 Million, to engage hundreds (potentially thousands) of local communities to clean up their waterways –as a clear first step - with the follow-up game plan mapped out as described above.
Just maybe, by 2040 and hopefully much sooner, the people of Asia will look at its rivers and waterways as a source of pride, and not, as now seems far more likely, a continued source of plastic waste.”
View panel discussion
Members of the panel Is Asia doing enough to clean up plastic waste from entering its waterways:
Doug Woodring, Ocean Recover Alliance Founder; CAPP.Global Co-Founder
Sekhar DC, Alpha MERS - Executive Director
Youna Lyons, Advisory Committee on the Protection of the Seas – Chair of the Board
Coleen Salamat, EcoWaste Coalition – Plastic Solutions Campaigner
Nikhilesh Paliath, Breakthrough from Plastic Youth Ambassador
Supported by: The Pictet Group Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation