Fighting against a tide of marine plastic as Covid-19 worsens pollution problem

 As an essential public service, solid waste management should be prioritised in recovery plans.
As an essential public service, solid waste management should be prioritised in recovery plans.PHOTO: AFP

Images of plastic littering oceans, hurting wildlife and polluting beaches are ever present. Now, Covid-19 may be worsening the problem because of a surge in the use and improper disposal of plastics and waste, including masks, personal protective equipment and single-use containers.

Adding to the waste burden is a drop in recycling, with many programmes temporarily halted because of Covid-related health concerns. Historically low oil prices have also pushed down the cost of virgin plastic, so usage of it has increased versus the more environmentally friendly, yet more expensive recycled resin.

Developing countries often lack effective waste management systems and specialised collection and treatment facilities for plastic, creating a major challenge to the goal of reducing the amount of plastic entering our oceans.

A substantial improvement in the management of plastic waste is vital to stop the influx of plastic into rivers and oceans which is adding materially to the problems caused by over-fishing, untreated sewage and agricultural run-off, and poorly planned coastal development.

Fighting plastic pollution

The World Bank Group is working to address plastic pollution at every stage of the plastic value chain. We currently have US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) of ongoing projects in solid waste management and other activities that prevent plastic pollution, and a further US$2 billion in the pipeline.

This includes supporting governments via investments in solid waste management and other sectors like coastal resilience and tourism; improving the working conditions of waste pickers; working with companies to rethink product and packaging design; and advising on policies that create incentives to make recycling markets more sustainable and inclusive.

In East Asia, the current epicenter of plastic pollution, many countries are emerging as champions in the fight against marine debris. For example, Indonesia plans to reduce marine plastic waste by 70 per cent by 2025 and has developed a new US$2.3 billion waste management programme.

This includes a contribution of US$100 million from the World Bank, with specific investments in marine litter management. This project will support more than a dozen cities as they improve collection and treatment of solid waste, aiming to cut in half the plastic waste leakage from those cities.

We are working with China to strengthen policies that will reduce plastic pollution from municipal solid waste and manufacturing and agricultural practices.

In Vietnam, Thailand, other Asean countries and in other regions such as Latin American and Africa, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank are catalysing a transition to a circular economy by assessing plastic value chains and supporting private sector investment in new materials, sustainable packaging, and recycling markets.

For example, IFC recently provided the first-ever blue loan exclusively focused on addressing marine plastic pollution to Indorama Ventures, a global plastic resin manufacturer. The US$300 million financing package will help Indorama reach its goal of recycling 50 billion PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles globally a year by 2025 including in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, India, and Brazil.

In South Asia, a new US$50 million regional project will help curb plastic pollution in the region and ramp up eco-innovation to reinvent single-use plastic and production.

IFC is also helping banks develop innovative financing instruments earmarked for projects that protect oceans and the millions of livelihoods in vulnerable populations that depend on them.

In addition, IFC is supporting subnational governments and private sector players along the plastic value chain, including resin manufacturers, global brands and recyclers which all have a role to play in this fight against plastics.

This work is leveraged by World Bank programmes such as PROBLUE, which supports about 40 engagements on plastic pollution in all regions. For example, in Nigeria, PROBLUE is supporting assessments of regional plastic value chains and filling knowledge gaps. In Mozambique, the World Bank is working with the government and private sector to find innovative, eco-friendly solutions and creating jobs that benefit the environment.

Reaction to pandemic

To respond to the pandemic and economic shutdowns, the World Bank is committing up to US$160 billion by June 2021 to support countries as they address the health and economic crises and work to recover.

There is an opportunity and responsibility to build back in a sustainable way that is greener, bluer and more prosperous. As an essential public service, solid waste management should be prioritised in recovery plans.

New policy incentives can be incorporated into recovery plans to reduce wasteful use of plastic, improve management of plastic waste, and adopt policies to properly sort and convert plastics into valuable resources while avoiding environmental and economic costs. Currently low oil prices create an important opportunity to level the playing field for recycled plastic by reducing the fuel subsidies that favour virgin plastic and drain scarce fiscal resources.

To reduce plastic pollution and keep our oceans healthy, we need to build back bluer, with all sectors innovating and collaborating at every point along the value chain.

Just as green capital can be an engine for jobs and development, blue capital can help drive reconstruction, reduce poverty and help achieve food security. It is worth the investment.

David Malpass is president of the World Bank Group.