Stopping Plastic Pollution in our Oceans

USAID is tackling this global challenge with local solutions

#MoreFishNotPlastic succinctly sums up the ethos behind the work these young people and many others who live in coastal communities are doing to keep plastic and other pollution from entering the world’s oceans. / Ouie Sanchez

The amount of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean is increasing at an alarming rate, creating an urgent challenge for the world’s environment and economy. If we continue on our current trajectory, by 2050 — pound for pound — we may have more plastic in the ocean than fish.

While the challenge of ocean plastics is global, most of the solutions need to be local. The best way to address the flow of plastic into the ocean is to stop it at the source.

Most ocean plastic pollution emanates from developing countries — and, more specifically, from rapidly urbanizing coastal cities in the developing world — where waste management systems, infrastructure and governance are struggling to keep pace with growing populations and increasing amounts of trash.

If the world continues on its current trajectory, by 2050 there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish. / Ouie Sanchez

From Washington D.C. to Jakarta and almost everywhere in between, waste management is a local issue.

Solving the problem of ocean plastics requires strengthening those local systems. That means coordination and collaboration among local and national governments; grassroots community organizations, civil society and schools; businesses up and down the recycling value chain; and development organizations, researchers and international NGOs.

This local systems approach is at the core of USAID’s work on this issue. Through the Municipal Waste Recycling Program, USAID is supporting 20 different locally-led marine debris projects in cities throughout Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam — four countries that are among the world’s largest contributors to ocean plastics pollution.

Father and son independent waste collectors pick up trash and recyclable materials in Vietnam’s Binh Thanh District. / Nguyen Minh Duc

Importantly, we are already seeing positive results on the ground from our approach. In Da Nang, Vietnam, the success of a USAID-supported, locally-led participatory approach to build consensus on citywide policies and identify suitable models for community-based recycling is generating interest from the national government, which has requested input from our local partners in Da Nang on a new National Action Plan on Ocean Plastic Waste.

In the Philippines, a USAID partner in Metro Manila is helping independent waste collectors organize into small social enterprises and providing them with a small amount of seed capital to purchase equipment and protective gear. These enterprises are then developing additional collection routes, improving waste collection in hard-to-reach and underserved locations.

In Indonesia, USAID’s partner is supporting the city of Semerang to create ‘waste banks’ — collection sites where local residents can deposit waste (which the bank then sells in bulk to recyclers) — in exchange for credits that can be withdrawn later as cash or used to purchase household goods. This is creating the scale and improved storage facilities needed for recycling lower-value thin plastics.

Clockwise from top: In Sri Lanka, Maria Selvi, a 40-year-old mother of three, produces tote bags that are made from recycled materials. J. Siriyawarthi and Jayawathi Weeratunga sort and then cart away waste. Manjula Prasard, 32, arranges recyclable waste at a collecting center at Badowita Dehiwala where USAID provides guidance. / Pradeep K. Pathirana

Women and Waste Management

While the challenge of ocean plastics is clear, one important aspect of the solution is often overlooked — the role of women. From waste-pickers to recycling entrepreneurs, educators to advocates, women play a crucial role in improving the systems, policies and practices for how we manage plastic waste.

In Sri Lanka, our local partner is working with 17 community-based organizations to train women leaders in household waste management, recycling and composting. These community organizations are, in turn, training thousands of their neighbors in waste separation at source and linking them to independent waste collectors operating in their communities.

Financing Self-Reliance

USAID also recognizes that solving the problem of ocean plastics requires more capital investment in larger-scale initiatives, such as facilities for waste processing and disposal, manufacturing plants that use recycled materials, and other infrastructure. Financing all of the necessary investments in the recycling value chain will require innovation and coordination between public and private sectors.

In that regard, I am pleased that the recently passed BUILD Act of 2018 consolidates USAID’s Development Credit Authority and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation into a new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, or USIDFC.

This new agency creates a unique opportunity for USAID to significantly scale up its use of financing tools for development.

We will be able to take advantage of financing options beyond guarantees — including loans, political-risk insurance and equity — and a broader range of private-sector expertise to support and reorient ongoing programs toward enterprise-led development.

USAID is supporting a diversity of approaches to tackle this complex challenge. We hope to learn what works best in different contexts and support the scaling up of the most effective solutions.

Separation of waste and recyclables at Tu Duc secondary school in Vietnam. / Nguyen Minh Duc

About the Author

Carrie Thompson is the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment. Follow at @USAIDEnviro and learn more about USAID’s efforts to combat ocean plastics pollution at www.urban-links.org/mwrp_info.