In a September annual report on its activities, the alliance said Renew Oceans planned to use a waste trap technology called ReFences to corral materials in a Ganges tributary. It said Renew was also developing a pilot pyrolysis plant to turn the plastic waste into fuel.
But Lee said the project, which was being operated in the Ganges River pilgrimage city of Varanasi, ran into problems, in part because of COVID-19.
A university in India that was using alliance funding and playing a key role in building Renew shut down due to the coronavirus lockdowns. As well, she said the effort began having other problems.
"Without any foreseeable timeframe for restarting, combined with other implementation challenges identified by Renew Oceans, the Alliance and Renew Oceans jointly decided to a mutual termination agreement in October 2020," she said.
The Reuters story quoted four unnamed people involved with Renew Oceans saying that it had collected less than 1 metric ton of waste from the Ganges before it closed in early 2020, and the article said that the alliance had given the project $5 million.
Lee declined to disclose financial details but said that unused money would be returned.
Renew's website said it aimed to collect 45 metric tons of ocean-bound plastic around Varanasi in 2019 and industry documents said it hoped to grow that tenfold in 2020.
By comparison, Renew estimates about 550,000 metric tons of plastic enters the Ganges, one of the world's largest rivers, each year. About 400 million people live in the Ganges River catchment.
The group also said on its website it was deploying a type of reverse vending machine it called a "plastic muncher" in river communities. The kiosk-like devices would compensate people for depositing plastic waste in the machines, and the group would turn that into fuel.
The Reuters article, however, quoted unnamed people working with Renew saying that the "muncher" devices regularly malfunctioned.
Lee said AEPW has learned things from the challenges with Renew and suggested setbacks will happen as it "invests in many ideas and pioneering approaches."
"We will continue to learn from all our projects and recognize when pioneering new approaches, some 'starts' and 'stops' are inherent in the process," she said. "The alliance has many examples of very successful projects."
‘Impact will grow'
While Renew Oceans ultimately proved unsuccessful, alliance leaders had in the past repeatedly held it up as a model.
At the 2019 launch ceremony for the alliance, Dow's Fitterling said the AEPW viewed Renew as a very viable project it could duplicate in other major rivers around the world.
"We wanted to focus on projects that could have a high impact and we wanted to come out of the gate with some very high impact, scalable projects," he said. "And this was one that we believe has a lot of impact."
"If we can take that and then scale that in Southeast Asia or in Africa where we need to also address the issue, it's going to be very, very helpful," he said at the time. "It's one of the best projects we've got."
The founder of Renew Oceans, Priyanka Bakaya, spoke at the launch event, and the project was regularly mentioned in AEPW documents. CEO Jacob Duer, for example, highlighted it as one of three key projects in a speech at a sustainable development forum in 2019.
As well, AEPW member Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. released a four-minute video in July talking about its work with Renew Oceans.
Greenpeace's Hocevar, however, argued that the problems with Renew raise questions about the alliance's ability to make a real dent in the problem.
"The same fossil fuel companies that are doubling down on plastic production have claimed that projects like Renew Oceans can stop the flow of plastics into our oceans," he said. "Everyone, including the industry executives behind the alliance, knows that is a lie."
But the AEPW's Lee said many alliance projects are moving forward, even with what she said were inevitable stops and starts with new approaches and problems many encountered in the coronavirus lockdowns.
The AEPW business model is not to fund all the plastic waste cleanup needed by itself, but rather to act as a seed investor, demonstrating the viability of projects so they can attract funding from development banks, governments and others.
Lee said the first of 30 waste management centers the alliance plans in Indonesia opened this month and said they would ultimately improve the lives of 7 million people and reduce plastic in the environment.
She also pointed to the Closing the Loop project in Ghana that will divert 500 tons of waste a year when it's operational.
The 20 projects the alliance has currently committed to can divert 300,000 tons of plastic waste a year from the environment when they're fully operational, Lee said.
"It is ... very important to remember that the projects that deal with diverting plastic waste from the environment will only realize their full potential when their operations are in full scale," she said. "This is just the start and we know our impact will continue to grow as we scale efforts."