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COVID-19 exacerbated the plastic pollution crisis. Here’s how we’re fighting back.

Hoi An (Hoian), Vietnam - April 12, 2018: Garbage collectors loading trash by hand. Garbage truck at old street of Hoi An Ancient Town in morning. Hoian is a popular tourist destination of Asia.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is working to eradicate plastic pollution and realise a more sustainable, inclusive world. Image: Getty Images

Kristin Hughes
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already sharply escalating plastic pollution crisis.
  • This crisis is not only environmental, but also humanitarian, because of the impact on traditionally marginalised groups like informal sector workers and women and girls.
  • The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) has three ideas for how to eradicate plastic pollution and realise a more sustainable and inclusive world.

The skyrocketing use of disposable plastic masks and gloves, without the waste management infrastructure needed to cope. Lockdowns on movement and shuttered recycling facilities. Suspensions or delays on laws that would have restricted single-use plastic bags in shops and markets. The plastic pollution crisis, already sharply escalating over the last decade, has been significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resulting crisis is not only environmental, but also starkly humanitarian. At the local level, informal sector waste pickers and others working in waste management are facing evaporated livelihoods and high risk of infection. Women and girls, traditionally marginalised by harmful societal norms and excluded from employment and protections in the formal sector, are disproportionately affected.

When we started the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) two years ago to translate commitments to reduce plastic pollution into concrete action, we knew this would be a daunting and complex task. But we never could have anticipated the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic.

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There has never been a greater need, nor has there been a greater imperative to take action. While we work urgently to address the crises at hand, we also need to put the world back on the path towards sustainable, equitable and inclusive growth. Eradicating plastic pollution will be a key part of that long-term sustainable development agenda.

Here are three things to help us get there.

1. Plastic action must be scaled up dramatically. Insights from our three pilot countries can help accelerate this process.

Two years ago, our colleagues at SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Charitable Trusts developed a groundbreaking model that allows governments to measure, evaluate and address their national plastic pollution challenges in a systematic way. This model was recently published as part of the “Breaking the Plastic Wave” study, which shows how we can reduce plastic leakage into the ocean by 80% by 2040.

GPAP became the first to put that model into action at the national level through our unique National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) model – a locally led, locally driven platform for creating country-specific approaches to tackling plastic pollution.

GPAP milestones 2018-2020
Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) milestones, 2018-2020 Image: GPAP

Indonesia was the first country to come on board. In April, in partnership with the Government of Indonesia, we launched a Multistakeholder Action Plan that proposes a clear path forward for reducing marine plastic leakage by 70% by 2025 and achieving a circular economy for plastics by 2040. This plan is now being carried forward by five parallel task forces, each dedicated to advancing progress and building capacity on a different front. The NPAP will also soon release a financing roadmap for mobilising the billions needed to scale up nationwide infrastructure for effectively collecting and processing waste.

While specific contexts and challenges will differ from country to country, we see great potential to replicate this approach in many countries across the world. Similar platforms and action plans are under development in Ghana and Viet Nam. These countries are emerging as regional trailblazers for fighting plastic pollution and managing plastic waste through a multistakeholder approach; we will work closely with them to share lessons learned and practical knowledge with neighbouring countries. Ultimately, we hope to catalyse the formation of regional hubs for knowledge exchange and collaboration.

Finally, we’re working to bridge a critical gap between commitment and implementation through the development of actionable and user-friendly knowledge products. To help national decisionmakers bring the NPAP model to their countries, we are building two tools: an open-source online knowledge platform that collates resources on combatting plastic pollution, and a step-by-step reference guide on how to build and run an NPAP. Both products will be available in early 2021.

2. There is an abundance of high-potential plastic action innovations out there. The moment for boost is now.

Innovative plastics solutions turn radical action plans into reality. In each NPAP country, we are supporting locally led task forces dedicated to advancing innovation.

In Indonesia, our partner SecondMuse, a social impact accelerator and co-chair of the innovation task force, recently held a pitching event to showcase the work of young innovators that could significantly improve waste management and reduction. Circulate Capital, one of our global advisors, recently announced inaugural investments of $6 million in two plastics recycling businesses in India and Indonesia, with a special focus on helping these companies weather the COVID-19 crisis.

In Ghana, our partner UNDP is bridging innovators with much-needed resources and mentorship through the ‘Waste’ Recovery Innovation Challenge, sponsored by the Coca-Cola Foundation. The Challenge will support a minimum of three start-ups with seed capital and 10 more with tailored support to scale their businesses. Geminicorp Recycling, one of the platform members and a global recycling giant, will play a key role in providing the winners with both technical and resource assistance.

Lastly, from the early days of the pandemic, we and our partners have worked to draw attention to the unprecedented challenges facing informal sector waste pickers. When technology giant SAP approached us to offer resources to support those who had been hit hardest by the pandemic, we brought them together with waste picker unions and other local partners in Ghana and Indonesia to create a digital pilot solution to help waste pickers fast-track their path to formalization. The pilot is expected to launch this autumn.

3. We need to mainstream gender and inclusion across all aspects of plastic pollution action.

Any environmental action must put the needs and perspectives of women, girls and traditionally marginalised communities at the forefront. But there has been a critical lack of knowledge in the plastic action space on this front, particularly in the area of gender mainstreaming.

With the upcoming release of a comprehensive guidance e-book on embedding a gender lens across all points of the plastics value chain, we hope to significantly close that gap. At the same time, recognising that gender and cultural norms differ across national contexts, we’ve hired local gender experts from Indonesia and Ghana to build out country-specific guidance for our partners.

It’s also important to acknowledge that highly valuable work is already taking place. One of our partners, the NGO Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), has worked for decades to support the livelihoods of women labourers and informal sector workers. In countries such as Ghana, Brazil and Mexico, WIEGO uses research and advocacy to support local workers and unions in the fight for recognition and formalization. Their collaboration and insight have been vital to us in building our global and national approaches to gender mainstreaming.

A truly inclusive platform must also listen to and uplift the voices of youth leaders from around the world. From Indonesia, sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen have emerged as notable young leaders in a movement to ban single-use plastic bags. From Ghana, Joshua Amponsem is leading community initiatives on climate adaptation through promoting sustainable waste management. From the Bahamas, Kristal Ambrose is using her environmental science and research background to educate students about combatting plastic pollution. With our platform, we hope to help embed the youth perspective across all facets of plastic action and environmental work, rather than keeping them siloed.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

Looking ahead

As GPAP turns two years old during this week’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, we are calling on government, businesses and civil society to boldly step forward in tackling the plastic pollution crisis together. The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the global plastic action movement, but we have seen from our community a collective resilience, agility and determination to press on. Please take a look at our newly published annual report to learn more about the milestones we’ve surpassed and lessons we’ve learned – and the journey that remains ahead of us.

We are now working rapidly to scale our impact and propel plastic action to the top of the recovery agenda. In the coming year, we hope to:

  • Bring our NPAP model to more countries.
  • Launch critical knowledge products that will scale up action, including roadmaps for Ghana, Viet Nam and other countries.
  • Lift up and highlight the work of local partners.
  • Mobilise our partners in delivering much-needed support to marginalised communities.

The path to recovery will be difficult, but to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive world, we must propel environmental protection, communities’ livelihoods, and plastic action to the top of the agenda. Together, we can shape a more sustainable and inclusive world through the eradication of plastic pollution. Join us!

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