On June 6, a panel of experts convened by The author is one of those experts. and Nature Research—part of Springer Nature—will talk about the issue of plastic pollution, including possible solutions, in Washington, D.C.
The plastic waste crisis has been growing and deepening for years. We’ve known it was happening, and too many of us have stood by and watched it escalate. Fortunately, we are starting to see the emergence of a broad and growing group of stakeholders who are coming together—in their own ways—to tackle this complex challenge. I became involved in this topic nearly 15 years ago through my environmental work at Coca-Cola. At that time, there was an emerging discussion about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which may now be more than twice the size of Texas. But beyond that fact, little was known.
A few of us working in this area became concerned by the scale of the problem and started to ask for more science and data to help guide us to solutions. Fast-forward to 2012, when a National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) working group brought together, for the first time, leading academics to take a closer look at the existing science. The effort represented a turning point in understanding the problem and how we might go about devising solutions to tackle it. One of the papers the NCEAS group produced started to point at the leaking countries—nations where the most plastic waste was flowing into our oceans—and brought into sharper focus where we could prioritize resources to begin to address the crisis.
The Ocean Conservancy followed with a groundbreaking report, Stemming the Tide, which indicated that focusing on waste management in these countries would be one of the most impactful levers to stop the flow of eight million metric tons of plastic entering the world’s oceans each year. The million-dollar question—or, in this case, the multibillion-dollar question—is where to find the resources to solve the problem. There are significant infrastructure needs in these countries, and currently, very little funding is flowing into the development of new waste and recycling solutions.
Our mission at Circulate Capital is to catalyze billions of dollars to invest in such solutions by proving the case for financing for-profit enterprises that are developing in South and Southeast Asia (SSEA), the area currently responsible for 45 percent of the oceans’ plastic waste. By demonstrating the possibility to generate financial returns from these investments, we believe we can unlock the public and private institutional investors needed to address this challenge.
As we start to fund, and unlock other investments in, solutions to plastic pollution, it is important that we keep the science and data in mind to prioritize the dollars and their potential impact. That is why we are only looking to invest in companies with approaches that are scalable and replicable. In the Investment Handbook that we issued this past March, we identified disrupters at every level, from collection to aggregation and recycling, that need financial capital to scale solutions and laid out a variety of factors impacting the entire plastics value chain to help investors evaluate opportunities and deploy assets in the SSEA region.
The handbook is a first-of-its-kind guide to investment opportunities in SSEA’s municipal waste–management and recycling–infrastructure sectors, the two sectors in the region that Circulate Capital and the Ocean Conservancy identified as having the most solutions ready to scale. It lays out a variety of factors impacting the entire plastics value chain to help investors evaluate opportunities and deploy assets in SSEA.
But investing in companies such as these is not going to be enough. There are simply not enough options ready to scale. In addition to the financial capital required to help solve this problem, we also see a great need for human capital and innovation support The Incubator Network by Circulate Capital and SecondMuse, which we announced in September 2018, seeks to change that situation, The Incubator Network uses philanthropic and public funds and technical assistance to bolster and develop public and nonprofit entities to implement new approaches and build capacity that can support large institutional capital commitments.
Solving the plastic-waste crisis will not be easy, and there is no silver bullet. The challenge demands the realignment of the ecosystem that generates ocean plastic pollution and the creation of one that remediates it—forming a circular economy that takes old plastic and turns it into a new, reusable resource for future materials. But we believe that the process we have begun will prove that investment in the resource-recovery sector can ultimately provide financial returns, completely change the system and start to solve the problem of ocean plastic.