Plastic waste – how can we get out of the crisis?


Anna Wolf


Plastic is omnipresent in our world and we cannot live without it: Computers, toothbrushes, water proof clothing, health care products, cosmetics, cars – nothing would exist without plastics. And still, plastic enjoys a bad reputation these days. Why? The answer lays in its unique characteristic of being very durable. Up to estimated 450 years does it take for plastics to become decomposed. Thus, the strength of plastics turns into our nightmare once it mistakably enters the environment, which happens daily in huge dimensions.

‘Plastic planet’, ‘garbage dump sea’ and ‘We are drowning in plastic waste’ are typical headlines of today’s media coverage emotionally underlined with shocking images of suffering sea animals. Everybody knows that we in the middle of a huge environmental crisis. Yet, a global agenda to solve the problem is not in sight. This is also the critical finding of a policy paper commissioned and funded by the German Röchling Foundation and put together by Beyond Philanthropy early this year.

The study seeks to provide a systematical overview on the most important challenges, different solutions, approaches and players in the field. And, it provides answers to questions such as: Who is pursuing which goal? Are there contradicting priorities?

The paper provides a holistic view of the plastic problem in order to enable everybody to derive his own strategic way forward. It also puts a positive view on the complex issue following the statement of Erik Solheim, head of UN environment: ‘Plastic is not the problem, the problem is what we do with it’. However, so far, we do nothing with the material, we just dispose it at best.

Today’s measures are falling short
Current policy measures do not go far enough. They fall short on connecting the reduction of plastics emissions with the idea of a recycling economy. We must to develop an intelligent system of incentives to push recycling quotes, reduce plastic use and clean-up the environment.

Additionally, we must invest in research and innovation. For example, there are vast gaps in our knowledge of the main pathways through which (micro-)plastics are released and the possible effects of additives contained in plastics on animal and human welfare.

And, finally, we must strengthen networks and develop a sector overarching agenda in order to reach a solution on a higher level of impact. Until now, the plastics producing industry is not integrated well enough into international civil society efforts. Cross-sectoral initiatives have mainly involved companies from the consumer goods industry. It is surprising that hardly any companies from the plastics processing industry are involved in such initiatives. Their involvement is needed for any kind of breakthrough when it comes to sustainable solutions such as establishing functioning recycling circles.

Know-how from philanthropy sector needed
At the same time, a growing number of actors from different sectors taking part in the struggle raises the complexity of the situation and complicates coordination further. The enormous knowledge and experience of the global philanthropic institutions are desperately needed to develop strong methodical frameworks and intelligent formats to unleash the power of joint and well-coordinated actions across sectors. Tools, such as convening dialogues, fostering partnerships or providing a backbone infrastructure for the collaboration between non- and for-profit organizations, academia and politics are essential and decide whether we will win the fight against plastic pollution or not.

For more information about the study see:

Anna Wolf is senior consultant at Beyond Philanthropy, a consultancy for social innovation, CSR and philanthropy.

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