I love working with changemakers who inform the way we all think to catalyze action and accelerate solutions to recycling’s biggest problems. That’s why I’m pleased to share this recent conversation with Shannon Bouton, President and CEO of Delterra, a non-profit environmental organization of which I’m a board member. Delterra and its flagship initiative, Rethinking Recycling, work with communities in the Global South to create inclusive and financially sustainable waste management and recycling solutions. They also partner with consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail companies to absorb this ethical sourcing of recycled materials on an ongoing basis at a fair price, breaking the cycle of undersupply and the low demand that afflicts recycling and its economy. What I love about them is their comprehensive systems approach coupled with their impact and on-the-job learning. It is rare to find organizations willing and able to provide both the “big picture thinking” and the capabilities to “roll up your sleeves and make it happen”.
During our recent chat, Shannon shared some of her insights on how CPGs and retail businesses can take action to support recycling and the circular economy, which are systemic challenges requiring systemic solutions. a wide variety of actors.
RK: Shannon – Why are businesses able to play a leading role in tackling our waste and recycling crisis?
SB: One of the biggest challenges we face is the severe lack of infrastructure to collect and treat waste in emerging economies around the world. About 2 billion people currently lack access to waste management and recycling systems and desperately need help to build, scale and maintain recycling infrastructure to reduce GHG emissions from waste. waste, as well as leakage of waste into the environment.
To tackle the waste crisis, we need collective support and investment from governments and industries. CPG companies are in an especially unique position to play a leadership role because they can directly implement and/or support changes that will help increase recycling participation and divert recyclable materials from landfills and oceans.
RK: Based on your team’s field experience, what are the critical challenges that companies can help us address?
SB: We have identified five challenges to focus on: (1) Building local markets to reduce the transport of waste and recycled materials around the world; (2) Invest in waste collection and recycling programs in key regions; (3) Implementation of promises to reduce waste and combat climate change; (4) Ensure inclusive systems that eliminate wasteful workers’ exposure to unsafe working conditions and unfair wages; and (5) Addressing food waste as a significant contributing factor to our waste, recycling and climate challenges.
RK: So let’s hear some of the solutions. Give us examples!
SB: The first step is that we have to promote the sorting, processing and distribution of recyclable materials at the local level. In Indonesia, for example, it is even more profitable to ship recycled PET out of the country to more profitable European markets than to sell it locally, which is obviously a bad solution, both for the environment and for the economy. local manufacturer. Recycling systems must become more local – this means developing collaborative and locally adaptable solutions for the supply and demand side of the challenge, thereby creating local markets that reliably absorb recycled materials at a fair price.
RK: What about investment needs? We’ve seen so many great ideas get seed funding, but they get stuck forever in “pilot purgatory”. How can businesses help?
SB: We need to invest in scalable recycling support infrastructure and projects. Obviously, CPGs and retail companies can’t build all of this infrastructure, but demonstration projects won’t be enough either. There are wonderful, singular projects all over the world, but what is missing is the next step – a focus on scaling to drive real system-level change and massive impact. Integrate scalability into project design; test scale models; and helping them gain momentum is critical and will require funders like CPG companies to be willing to take risks as we discover what works.
Focusing exclusively on “how many tones of X will my dollar get back” limits programs to playing it safe rather than allowing experimentation to drive real system change. Understanding how to adapt what works is the main focus of the work we do at Delterra and we believe this should also inform where companies are investing their resources.
RK: In the few months since COP26, we have seen a deluge of pledges from companies and governments regarding C02 emissions. How can we ensure that these actually happen?
SB: CPG companies can lead by example and find new opportunities to incorporate post-consumer recycled materials into existing supply chains and future partners. Beyond Delterrait is field programs that generate transparent and ethical sourcing for recyclable materials, there are other tools such as Plastic IQ, which help create custom action plans for CPG players and retailers to reduce their carbon footprint. greenhouse gases from plastic packaging.
RK: The informal waste and recycling sector is an essential part of the ecosystem of the region where we operate – South and Southeast Asia. As this issue gains prominence in plastic waste discussions, how can companies support ethical and recycling-friendly standards?
SB: The majority of informal waste and recycling workers work in hazardous conditions and struggle to access health care or support their families. Some studies have shown that the life expectancy of waste workers can be almost half that of their peers who live in similar socio-economic situations but work in different occupations. If the CPG industry were to push for ethical labor standards, it would not only ensure good, safe working conditions and fair wages for this vulnerable faction of essential workers, but also help them find meaningful reinforcement in the dignity of their work. We see it in Delterra’s Rethinking Recycling program. By ensuring fair wages, safe working conditions, access to health care, training and uniforms, waste workers in our programs develop true pride in the work they do and are empowered to become advocates and educators for recycling in the local community.
RK: I know your organization also focuses on organic and food waste. Why is this such an important question?
SB: Food waste has huge global impacts. It contributes ~5% of GHG emissions. This figure is even higher for emerging economies and reaches up to 15% in southern countries. That’s why we require that waste management programs not only focus on dry recyclables, but also organic materials, including discarded food. For example, Delterra’s programs work with local partners to create compost centers that divert food waste from landfills and also significantly reduce GHG emissions. From farm to fork, the entire food chain, including packaged food, must publicly focus on reducing wasteful practices and providing infrastructure to properly handle residual waste.
While CPG companies are not solely responsible for solving our global waste crisis, their significant influence can make a long-term difference in achieving climate goals. CPG companies can take concrete steps around waste management to address this issue now, so that 2030 can feel like a very different year.