Circular Economy

How empowering local communities can help solve global plastic waste

Tontoton community engagement programme.

An innovative plastic credit system is positively impacting communities and the environment. Image: Tontoton.

Barak Ekshtein
Chief Executive Officer, Tontoton
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Circular Economy

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Post-consumer, non-recyclable plastic waste has no commercial value.
  • Poor, climate-vulnerable communities live in areas blighted by this waste.
  • An innovative plastic credit system is positively impacting communities and the environment.

Every single day, we are confronted with an alarming plastic pollution problem. We have seen some success and examples of best practice in recycling plastic waste in countries around the world. But when it comes to post-consumer, non-recyclable plastic waste, our greatest challenge is to find a sustainable economic system to create value and prevent environmental leakage.

Plastic credits are one financially viable solution to this problem. They allow corporations to fund high-impact, community clean-up projects particularly focused on non-recyclable plastic wastes that are currently not part of the recycling system.

Many experts agree that we must move toward circularity – an economic approach in which materials and resources are re-used to their utmost extent. Other strategies include similar large-scale operations, such as regulations on production and sustainability practices and massive clean-up efforts by major environmental groups.

But, even though climate change is a global issue, great impact can be achieved on a local, community-based scale. A community-based solution is one in which the members of vulnerable communities are empowered to participate in and even lead clean-up efforts. Community-based solutions make use of people’s skills and resources within local communities and provide training and education so that clean-up efforts can be continued.

It’s easy to doubt this method; after all, how can smaller, local efforts make an impact on such a massive issue? Here are some benefits to community-based solutions, how they make a global impact, and how our projects have improved local communities while removing plastic waste from the global environment.

What are the benefits of community-based solutions?

Poorer communities are often the ones that are the most vulnerable to climate change. This is due to a number of factors: as urban centres develop waste increases but without proper waste management systems; developed countries often export their waste to developing countries that cannot properly manage it; lack of education leads to improper waste practices, like burning or burying trash; the location of these communities along rivers and shores leads to a build-up of ocean bound litter.

However, this vulnerability also provides an inherent incentive. Those who live in these communities see an immediate benefit to clean-up efforts. When a project provides additional benefits – like training, safe working conditions, and monetary incentives – it further empowers communities to actively participate in sustainability efforts.

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Besides the motivation factor, the locations where community-based sustainability projects take place are also the places where the most pollution occurs. For example, the Mekong River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It carries around 40,000 tonnes of plastic to the ocean every year. Therefore, community-based clean-up projects along the Mekong River can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean. By empowering communities in this area and educating them about the dangers of plastic pollution, we simultaneously clean the global environment while creating a better quality of life for those within these communities.

Successful projects must focus on the community

Like many aspects of sustainability and environmentalism, the community-based approach is not without its critics. Not all community-based projects are successful, and poor project strategies will have little to no impact. Furthermore, there are no global regulations regarding sustainability best practices, and so there are many well-meaning community-based projects that may not have the best strategies for success.

Studies show that community-based projects can be effective, but they must be designed and implemented well. Case studies across the world have shown examples of successful community-based projects.

In Bolivia, for example, an examination of 18 community-based water projects showed that providing education, training, and proper resources to local communities were key to water clean-up projects. In fact, further analysis of water projects in 49 developing countries found that community involvement was the key to their success, proving that community-based projects not only can be effective, but they may also be more effective than non-community-based approaches.

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For community-based projects to be effective, they must take certain aspects into consideration. Part of the reason why community-based initiatives can be difficult to implement is because there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Community-based environmental projects must:

● Keep the culture and traditions of the local community in mind and develop a project around it.

● Provide incentives for local community members to participate.

● Make a meaningful environmental impact that benefits both local and global communities.

● Follow sustainability regulations and recommendations by leading environmental groups.

Community-based solutions are effective, but only if they are designed well. We have developed a community-based solution to tackle ocean-bound plastic waste that offers benefits on multiple levels.

How our plastic credit system is helping local communities

TONTOTON’s plastic credit system not only removes non-recyclable, ocean bound plastic from the environment (we’ve prevented literally tonnes of plastic waste from entering our oceans and becoming marine plastic), but it does so in a way that benefits the local communities.

For example, in Cambodia, the average daily income for a low-skilled worker is $2.2 per day. The waste pickers who work with us have reported collecting up to $25 per day. This provides significant additional income with which they can better support their families.

In both Cambodia and Vietnam, the income provided also helped families struggling during COVID-19. Due to lockdowns and restrictions, many families saw less income than usual. Because of their work with us they were able to support their families during this difficult time.

“I can give money to my kids to spend at school,” one community member told us. Cleaning up plastic waste simultaneously keeps plastic from our oceans and waterways while improving the lives of individual families.

But, that’s not the only way that our projects positively impact communities. Littered waterways harbour bacteria that can cause sickness. It can also kill marine life, leading to fewer fish that the local fishers rely on for income. Furthermore, tourism may see growth as these communities become cleaner. As we help local communities to remove plastic waste from the environment, they get to enjoy the environmental benefits of cleaner water.

Today, we are working jointly on a master plan for Plastic-Free Coastlines in Cambodia with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project for “Combatting Marine Plastic Litter” in Cambodia, local NGOs, and the Royal Government of Cambodia.

We'd like to hear your experiences of running community-based solutions, particularly in relation to plastic pollution.

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