The problem of plastic waste is a global one, but for emerging economies that have not yet developed the recycling infrastructure the effects can be felt far more acutely. Victoria Hattersley spoke with Andrew Almack, CEO and founder of Plastics for Change, about how this problem could be approached by recognizing the value of this ubiquitous material.

Plastics for Change, a recipient of the Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity $1 Million Global Maker Challenge, has created a digital platform that makes it profitable for companies in developing countries to transition away from virgin plastics. Through this, Plastics for Change combines environmental and social responsibility with the aim of transforming lives in emerging economies. The platform can help the 1% of the urban population in developing countries that rely on recycling as their primary household income to gain access to a steadier income. Project partners so far include the Body Shop, the University of Cambridge, World Resources Forum and more.

VH: Could we begin with the background behind Plastics for Change: what inspired you to set up this initiative, and why is it so vital at this point in time?

AA: It started when I had the opportunity to travel through South Asia and became fascinated with connection between plastic waste and poverty. It seemed so strange that there was this petroleum-based resource everywhere yet people living in dire poverty were not able to make a decent living by collecting this discarded material. 

I realized there was an opportunity to bring waste management systems to communities that don’t have them. The challenge, as I saw it, was to create the demand for recycled plastic and make it easier for brands and manufacturers in these emerging economies to source these materials. I’ve been in India for six years and we’re now starting to reach some scale with the project.

VH: How does your digital platform make it profitable for companies to transition away from virgin plastic?

AA: We provide a supply chain as a service and then reverse engineer the supply chain to ensure a consistent supply of high quality material. Most plastic traders simply trade the commodity, but we create a detailed plan for how the brands can achieve their recycling goals while also creating a social impact Then we stabilize the price of the raw material, and our field associates can go into communities within the informal sector to onboard waste pickers and scrap shops to our ethical sourcing platform. We make sure everyone is being paid on time and in full through the supply chain.

We also work very hard on quality assurance and quality control methods, training workers and supervisors on how to segregate plastics by hand which is actually an incredibly skilled job. We then buy all this plastic from scrap shops and sell it to the most advanced granule makers to create the higher quality plastics to be used in some of the consumer facing goods. For example, The Body Shop wanted to achieve 100% recycled plastic and now we’re on track to meet their demand.

VH: Aside from the economics, can you tell me about the social aspects of this initiative? What are the biggest challenges for individual pickers and business owners, and how do you address these?

AA: There are two billion people in the world that don’t have access to formal waste management systems. In countries like India, 40% of waste is not collected at all, so there’s a huge gap where it’s the waste pickers who are responsible for picking up discarded plastic and getting it back into the supply chain. An estimated 1.5 million to 4 million in India alone earn their primary household income from waste picking, with around 15 million globally in this, essentially informal, waste economy.

At the moment these people are facing huge challenges: prices are at an all-time low, especially during the Covid crisis where oil prices have crashed. This is coupled with a slowdown in manufacturing and all the accompanying supply chain disruptions. At the same time, of course, there has been a spike in single-use plastics which is leading to a perfect storm of plastic pollution.

We used the time when the economy was shut down to focus on our foundation: helping waste pickers gain access to education and healthcare services; helping them set up bank accounts so they can build up saving that will allow them to overcome future shocks to the market. Now that the economy is slowly beginning to move again we are focused on rebuilding the sector: trade, not aid.

VH: Given the nature of your initiative, I think it would be fair to say you are not anti-plastic per se. But what are your views on the plastics backlash? Is any of it justified?

AA: I think it’s all very circumstantial; it depends on the type of packaging. Small sachets made from multilayer materials, for example, are very challenging to recycle be recycled so that kind of single-use packaging needs to be redesigned for the circular economy. . Particularly in the case of places like India where the litter is being picked by hand, for an informal waste worker  to get a kilo of plastic they would have to pick up 2000 of these things so it’s not what they’re going to focus on. Who’s going to bend over 2000 times?

The industry also needs to consolidate the types of plastic that are used into those that are widely recycled. At the moment even a water bottle contains so many different kinds of plastics – lid, wrapper, the bottle itself – which makes it really challenging for the recycling infrastructure. I believe if brand are using plastics – like PS or PVC – for which the recycling rates are low then there should be a transition away from these.

Lastly, we urgently need to increase the demand for recycled materials by introducing incentives for using a certain amount of recycled plastic in a package, and penalties if we go below a certain amount. In some sectors they’re already doing this and I think it serves to level the playing field.

I believe Western Countries have a responsibility as we created a lot of these business models and then exported them to emerging economies before they had the waste management systems in place.

VH: Finally, what about the growing trend we are seeing towards reusable packaging? Is any of this reflected in developing countries, or is the market not there for it yet?

AA: No, I don’t see a lot of that right now and, while it can work well in developed countries I don’t actually think it addresses the root cause of the problems in the emerging economies. That’s because a lot of the reusable items being rolled out are often replacements for bottles, and in India for example the recycling rate for bottles is quite high because they have value for waste pickers and recyclers. Here, the key would be to innovative around some of the lower value plastics – such as multilayer single-use packs, for example. If you could create reuse around these, then that is addressing the root cause, but otherwise I think the focus in emerging economies should be on developing recycling infrastructure and an inclusive circular economy.