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Plastic Waste and the Circular Economy
August 14, 2019

On August 15, Alliance member companies participated in the 5th Annual Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit in Washington. The conference, hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, brought together more than 200 representatives from government, the private sector and the non-profit community to explore the latest trends and collaborative efforts in global sustainability.

Plastic waste leaking into the environment was on the conference agenda and Alliance members shared their views on industry-led approaches and solutions. “Viewing plastic as waste is not acceptable. We need to view it as an economic resource. In a circular economy, we all need to think about how we can use this valuable resource over and over again,” said Haley Lowry, Global Sustainability & End User Marketing Director at Dow.

Lowry said there is ample opportunity for innovation to address plastic waste, starting with designing products that have greater ability to be recycled and reused, as well as developing new recycling technologies and infrastructure. “Innovation will come in many areas. We can develop new materials. We can improve our logistics. We can build new economic models and we invest in recycling infrastructure,” she said.

Ron Cotterman, Vice President of Innovation and Sustainability at Sealed Air, said collaboration is also critical for success. “We working to get on the same page, to have a set of aligned and common goals. We are trying to solve problems that are bigger than our individual companies and organizations,” he said.

Ron said that one of Sealed Air’s most recognizable products—its Bubble Wrap® packaging—has been reformulated to include a greater amount of recycled material. “And it still pops,” he noted.

April Crow, Vice President for External Affairs & Investor Relations at Circulate Capital, said her organization is focused on identifying and channeling new investments. “We’re asking where the funding is going to come. Only a small part is coming from institutional sources. So we have established a fund to channel money where the problem is greatest,” Crow said.

As one of its initial project partners, the Alliance is providing funding to support The Incubator Network by Circulate Capital and SecondMuse to develop and promote technologies, business models and entrepreneurs that prevent ocean plastic waste and improve waste management and recycling. The intent is to create a pipeline of projects for investment, with an initial focus on South and Southeast Asia.

“We know plastic waste has economic value. At every stage of the supply chain, there are business opportunities. That’s why we have created an incubator network to help build a pipeline of investment opportunities,” Crow said.

The panelists agreed on the urgency for action. But Ron asked the audience an important question: in sustainability areas such as this, do we need a compass or a speedometer? He said a compass may be more important. “A compass can help us all get on the same page, rather than just speeding ahead with solutions that may not work, or may cause more harm,” he said.

April said success will require local engagements. “Global companies can bring their supply chains. But we need local solutions. And that means we need to work with local organizations on the ground. Help them grow. Bring in global expertise. Develop their business skills. Identify local solutions. Solutions for India and Indonesia will look different,” she said.

Haley said there is an important role for civil society. “Non-profits are critical to this challenge. In many countries where plastic waste is in the environment, NGOs have an in-country presence and lot of influence in local communities. So we need partnerships all over the place,” she said.

Ron and Haley both expressed optimism that we can find solutions to plastic waste. “When I think about climate change, that’s a huge undertaking that I can’t see resolved in my lifetime. But when I think about solving the plastic waste problem, I can see us making a lot of progress in the next decade. This is doable if we all collaborate,” Ron said.

Haley agreed. “When you stand on a beach in Indonesia and you’re knee-deep in waste, it takes your breath away. But I am very passionate about using business to solve larger problems. This is the space to do that. What companies can do is innovate and scale up. That’s what we do best,” she concluded.