Cleaning up ocean plastic and environmental pollution will take a lot more than the $1-$1.5 billion pledged from the industry-funded Alliance to End Plastic Waste, probably something in the range of $150 billion.
The head of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has built partnerships with some of the world's largest consumer packaging companies around plastics use, told a Feb. 26 forum in Washington that the industry needs to think bigger than the AEPW and its Asia-focused goals if it wants to stop plastic waste.
"The investment is not a $1 billion problem, it's a $150 billion problem," said Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Cowes, England-based group, in a keynote speech at a forum on the circular economy and plastics at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington.
"We know that the developing markets are not going to be able to, or be willing, to invest that kind of money post use," Morlet said. "We need to have industry stepping up and actually contributing to the creation of that infrastructure so that these systems can grow."
The Foundation is active in global plastics environmental issues. It launched the New Plastics Economy project in 2018 with pledges from more than 450 companies and organizations to tackle single-use plastics, use more recycled content, eliminate unneeded plastics and adopt reusable packaging models.
An AEPW executive at the forum said members agree that it will take a lot more money than the $1.5 billion the alliance has pledged but said the group sees its role as funding to identify solutions that can be proven to work, be scaled up and be able to attract funding from other investors.
"We do recognize that $1.5 billion is not enough to solve the problem but if we can be part of identifying the solutions that can solve the problem, then we know the resources are out there," said Jacob Duer, CEO of the Singapore-based AEPW. Duer, who spoke on a panel at the forum, said right now investors are looking for workable solutions.
"I am contacted on an almost daily basis by venture capital and private equity and the development banks, they have tons of resources they can invest but what they are looking for are solutions," he said. "Those solutions don't exist today and that's where the alliance can come in and that's where we can add value."
The AEPW formed in January 2019 and has announced several projects. Duer joined as CEO in August. "Forty-seven companies are coming together in 12 months and they have raised $1 billion. I think that's indication already of the commitment," he said. "What we are looking to do from the alliance is we are looking to be part of creating the solution," Duer said
AEPW believes it will take at least $50 billion to build out waste management infrastructure in Asia alone.
In comments after the forum, Morlet pointed to an upcoming report from the Pew Charitable Trust that will provide more details on the $150 billion figure for worldwide investment in infrastructure. He told the forum that it's very important to improve the economics for plastics recycling and recycled content plastics compared with virgin plastics.
But he also argued that solutions are going to be much broader than "end of pipe" ideas like managing waste and preventing materials from getting into the oceans. He told the forum that 75 percent of the solution needs to come upstream with things like redesigning packaging to be 100 percent recyclable, compostable or reusable.
Morlet also pointed to models like SodaStream, which could be applied to personal care and other products. "We're seeing entrepreneurs and innovative companies investing heavily in R&D to think about ways in which we can both eliminate and reuse plastics," he said. "We believe that industry is a very big part of the solution, and the reason is that this is where innovation resides."
"The end of pipe is a big issue but we have to go upstream," Morlet continued. "The upstream component of this is around 75 percent of the solution space."
The group is also planning to launch a U.S. Plastics Pact in spring 2020, following similar pacts in Europe, Chile and South Africa. Morlet did not provide details on the U.S. agreement, but pacts in other countries have seen major corporate users of plastics and industry groups make national commitments in line with the New Plastics Economy project. That effort includes companies that account for about 20 percent of the world's plastics use.
Other executives speaking at the forum noted both challenges around plastics, and risks from eliminating plastics if other materials have greater environmental impacts. Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management Inc., said he agreed with Morlet on rethinking use of what he called low-value plastics on the front end of manufacturing. Markets for materials like recycled PET and high-density polyethylene are stronger but many other types plastics are more problematic to recycle economically, he said.
"As opposed to using low value plastics and trying to find a recycling solution that's challenging form an economic standpoint … we're looking at how do we find a better solution for things like low-value plastics," said Fish.
But Halsey Cook, CEO of plastic additive maker Milliken & Co. in Spartanburg, S.C., said policymakers need to be careful about eliminating plastics and shifting to materials with a higher carbon footprint, particularly with climate change looming as an "existential threat." Still, Cook said it's possible that producer responsibility laws could be part of the legislative mix in the United States, and he noted he spent part of the previous day talking to members of Congress about the issues. "We're going to start to see increased legislation," Cook said.
"The laws are already on the books in Europe about single-use plastics. There are several states in the United States [considering them]. The environment is going to change."