Catalysing capital for plastics circularity

Nicholas Kolesch, Vice President of Projects, Alliance to End Plastic Waste, says it’s “critically important” financial resources to address the full lifecycle of plastic be mobilised as soon as possible.

Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, world leaders formally recognised the need to mobilise more than $100 billion in climate finance annually if the global community is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. It highlighted the need for more robust multi-stakeholder collaboration, as well as the need for innovative financing models—both essential learnings that can be applied to addressing plastic waste. 

Nations are ramping up to the first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting in Uruguay in November, where over 170 countries will convene to start negotiating a global instrument to address plastic pollution.

Governments will be discussing a range of issues including how to address the full lifecycle of plastic—from production to end-of-life. Without doubt, the need for funding to improve waste management, processing, and recycling, especially in emerging economies, will be a major point of debate. 

Against this backdrop, it is critically important that we make headway in mobilising financial resources as soon as possible. 

It is critically important that we make headway in mobilising financial resources as soon as possible

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste focuses on improving collection, sorting, processing, and recycling systems. These help to address mismanagement, effective disposal, and improve recycling, which when taken together, can address over 50% of plastic waste leakage according to Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Since joining the Alliance in early 2020, I have had the privilege of working with partners across 30 countries, to develop and deploy over 50 projects worldwide. Some 60% of our portfolio comprises infrastructure projects in underserved regions, where entire communities often do not yet have access to proper waste management services. Worldwide, this figure stands at three billion people. 

It has been a non-stop learning journey. The needs of waste management are unique to the local context, as are the enabling conditions required to prevent leakage and advance plastic circularity. 

In developing countries, it is often about improving access to waste management services, ensuring their sustainability, and enabling behavioural change within the community as the ‘hard-’ and ‘soft-ware’ solutions for waste management go hand-in-hand. In developed nations, it is about accelerating innovation to drive systemic change, from reducing excessive waste, to enabling reuse and refill models, to designing for circularity and valorising plastic waste by improving recycling. 

One thing is certain: people everywhere want to address plastic waste pollution; they just need viable options to do so. 

Circular transition

None of this will be cheap. According to the World Economic Forum, the transition to a circular economy for plastic will require investment of about $1.2 trillion to reach the scale of infrastructure needed by 2040, and a shift away from business-as-usual. 

In truth, waste management and recycling systems have been notoriously underfunded. According to a 2021 report by Chatham House, investment to advance circularity in plastics and packaging, including into waste management and recycling, accounted for just 11% of the total value of private capital flowing into circular economy solutions. This leads to a vicious circle of limited capital, lack of innovation, and the inability to take proven business models to scale. 

Catalysing capital will require the development of more innovative approaches to address the economics of waste management systems. Support can include partial grant funding for capital expenditure to reduce the overall amount and cost of commercial financing needed, and to facilitate transactions in this nascent industry. Developing more resilient markets for recycled material, with more effective collection, processing, and traceability can contribute to sound economics.

Catalysing capital will require the development of more innovative approaches to address the economics of waste management systems.

As there is no one-size-fits-all solution to deal with plastic waste, the Alliance serves as a “global laboratory”—to demonstrate solution models that work across different local conditions. We work with governments, technology providers, project implementation partners and communities to understand on-the-ground needs, and the approaches required to create sustainable operating models. 

We also act as a channel for solutions  to be transitioned from developed to emerging economies, adapting them to enable step changes in  waste management and recycling systems to support the rapid transition to a circular economy.

Through our efforts, we de-risk projects through funding and technical support to give each one the best chance of success. We work with partners to improve business models and provide capital injections through grants or concessional loans.

Collection network

We conduct feasibility studies and pilots enabled by our cross-value chain technical expertise. Through these efforts we develop, deploy and de-risk new operating models to address existing system gaps. Our ambition is to help projects to scale and we are starting to see impact as our projects mature. 

For example, we worked with Ghanian non-profit organisation ASASE Foundation in Accra to develop a collection network and recycling facilities. Over the course of the partnership, recycling capacity has grown over 100-fold, from 35 tons in 2019 to 4,000 tonnes per annum in 2022. It has helped create direct and indirect employment for 350 people, mostly women.

In Indonesia, building on the experience of smaller projects in Bali, we have started work to develop a large-scale waste management system to serve 2.6 million people in the second largest regency in east Java. Working hand-in-hand with the local and national governments, we will provide household collection to more than half a million households, targeting the collection and processing of 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste.

To support innovation, we originated the End Plastic Waste Innovation Platform, an accelerator programme with Plug & Play. Operating across seven hubs worldwide , the three-year-old initiative has screened over 3,000 start-ups, including over 120 who have graduated from the programme. These have gone on to launch commercial pilots and attracted over US$120 million in direct funding.

The Alliance has many other portfolio projects contributing to the needed shift from a linear to a circular economy, but we know our efforts alone are not enough. Nevertheless, the solution models we are proving and the capital we are catalysing are important steps on the journey to address the complex and multi-faceted waste management challenge. 

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