How to bring the circular economy to the global south

The question of how the world can shift towards a circular economy is back in the spotlight with the second round of negotiations in Paris on a global agreement to combat plastic pollution, which concludes tomorrow (June 2).

The negotiations came as a recently released report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) outlined the magnitude and nature of the changes needed to end plastic pollution and create a circular economy.

It specifically calls for key changes in the market, with more options for reuse, making recycling a more stable and profitable business, and the careful substitution of certain products, such as plastic wrap, with products made from alternative materials.

The treaty negotiations are scheduled to continue until 2024, but there will be much debate about the legislation and the role of public/private partnerships.

Another problem will be how to find scalable solutions that work, not only for developed economies in the north that already have infrastructure, but also for developing nations in other parts of the world.

The president and CEO of the environmental NGO Delterra, Dr. Shannon Bouton, said that in many cases there is a basic lack of infrastructure for waste collection and sorting in the Global South.

Dr. Bouton added that this means that materials that are technically recyclable are not recycled simply because factories do not exist to process them.

She told Forbes in an interview that it would require “enormous amounts of investment in infrastructure.”

And Dr. Bouton said there are other problems as well, such as human rights abuses, child labor and a general lack of health and safety at many landfills.

He added that there are “big gaps” in tracking recycled content from collection to use in new products, which is a major transparency issue for companies sourcing post-consumer recycled content.

“Ecosystems in some of these countries are not built to deal with waste, so a lot of it ends up in the environment,” he said.

“Plus, there’s the kind of packaging that’s sold there,” added Dr. Bouton.

“You see a lot of these little sachets in the Global South because some people can’t afford a whole bottle of shampoo. So they’ll be buying smaller amounts and packaged in the sachets, and those can’t be recycled.”

He said that while much has been invested in small programs, more needs to be done to help scale up solutions in the Global South.

Amcor, Delterra, Mars and P&G recently announced the launch of a $6 million strategic partnership to stem the tide of plastic pollution in the Global South.

Delterra has developed a number of products that are used in that region, including Plastic IQ, a digital tool that helps companies understand and improve their plastic footprint, and its Rethinking Recycling program.

Dr. Bouton said the reaction to these programs has been “overwhelmingly positive” and he now has a list of cities hoping to work with them in Argentina.

He added that Delterra hopes by the end of next year to be able to track 50% of the waste that flows through Argentina’s waste management system, which will help them establish more markets in the South American country.

Dr. Bouton said Delterra also hopes to start a program in Brazil next year, which already has regulations on extended producer responsibility.

“Of course, the goal is not just to expand in one country, but to see how replicable the model is in different countries,” he told Forbes.

“We think we can replicate these programs in Latin America, and eventually we would also like to see what we can do in parts of Africa as well.”

In a statement, Mars’ global vice president of packaging and sustainability, Alison Lin, said she wants to show that she can create successful programs for waste management and recycling systems, particularly in the Global South.

“The scale will allow the systems to be self-sufficient and ultimately protect people and the planet while also creating value for local communities,” he added.

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