How well do you understand the journey of a plastic bottle after use?
Only 14% of plastic packaging — including plastic wrappers, bottles, and bags — makes its way to recycling plants. Much of the remainder is discarded in landfills or the environment, where plastic can entangle animals and contribute to disease in coral reefs.
You might already be familiar with these impacts of plastic pollution on ocean ecosystems. But the relationship between plastic and poverty is less widely understood.
In countries with weak or nonexistent waste management services, your plastic will likely be handled by the informal sector. More than 15 million people earn an income as “waste pickers.” They scavenge through dump sites or street sides to find recyclable materials, which can be sold to scrap dealers for a few dollars a day.
Although waste pickers provide a valuable service to the community, they are often shunned from society, exploited by middlemen, and at constant risk of injuries and infections.
The plastic crisis calls for a systemic response: Manufacturers must produce less new plastic and transition to reusable, compostable, and recycled materials. At the same time, we must strengthen waste management systems, particularly in developing and emerging economies where waste is more likely to be dumped and leaked into oceans.
How might we develop solutions for managing plastic waste that improve the lives of low-income populations, rather than exploiting or leaving them behind?
More than 90 teams pitched their business models for a chance to win $25,000 from the Acumen-Unilever Social Innovation Challenge on Plastics. The three winning teams from India, South Africa, and Brazil — Plastics for Change, Regenize, and So+ma — are proving that we can reimagine the collection and processing of plastic to improve lives and the environment.
Plastics for Change is enabling a responsible supply chain in India
Most of the plastic that ends up in oceans comes from just 10 river systems, one of which is the Ganges in India. With limited municipal collection services, India is heavily reliant on waste pickers, yet many work in unsafe conditions without protective equipment or healthcare.
“We are trying to create livelihoods for people who do not have a lot of opportunities,” said Andrew Almack, founder of Plastics for Change. “Simultaneously, we’re working quickly to transition to a circular economy, because time is running out on this issue.”
Today, few products on grocery shelves are made of recycled plastic. Plastics for Change has developed a marketplace that makes it easier for global brands and manufacturers to source high quality recycled plastic from responsible supply chains.
By purchasing through the platform, manufacturers can be assured that waste pickers worked in safe facilities and were paid a decent income.
"There is a big disconnect between multinational companies and what is happening on the ground in emerging economies,” said Andrew. “They don't have a strong awareness of the role the informal economy will play in tackling this challenge. Waste pickers are the bridge to transition from burning and dumping to a formal waste management solution.”
"Waste pickers are the bridge to transition from burning and dumping to a formal waste management solution."
Plastics for Change is the first recycler to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization. As the demand for recycled plastic is expected to grow, Plastics for Change will use the grant funding to expand their supply capacity and grow their team.
“Waste pickers are incredibly entrepreneurial and resourceful people,” said Andrew. “They have a really tough life and they find a way. A lot of waste pickers are coming from extreme climate events, like the flooding in Kerala. They move to the city and there are multiple barriers to finding employment, but picking waste is a way to put food on the table.”
“If we can professionalize the sector and make it safer, that will go a long way."
Recognizing that only 5% of South Africans recycle, Regenize is bringing collection services to households
Nkazimlo Miti and Chad Robertson began their careers in software development. When they learned that only 5% of households in South Africa recycled their waste, Nkazimlo and Chad decided to found Regenize, a recycling company based in Cape Town.
Nkazimlo and Chad started off by building an app. But they quickly learned the challenge of waste management required more than technology: Regenize needed to change household behavior and bring dignity and professionalism to the informal sector.
Regenize needed to bring dignity and professionalism to the informal sector.
“Waste pickers were collecting recyclables through an inefficient and dangerous process,” said Chad. “They used broken down carts or stolen trolleys.”
In 2018, Regenize launched a pilot to provide free residential recycling collection to Bridgetown, where many residents don’t have access to municipal collection services. Regenize provides waste pickers with tricycles and uniforms, and then sells the collected materials to recyclers that process the plastic so it can be reintroduced to the value chain.
With the grant funding, Regenize will purchase more equipment and smartphone packages so their fleet of waste pickers can reach more households. The social enterprise also plans to set up decentralized collection and drop-off points.
Within three years, Regenize hopes to serve 150,000 households and create 145 permanent jobs.
"We know that working with waste pickers and the informal labor sector is not the most profitable upfront,” said Chad. “But we know we need to be patient because this is the model we want to take forward."
By trading plastic for digital points, So+ma is changing recycling behavior and creating economic opportunities in Brazil
Claudia Pires had a 20-year career in the corporate sector, including four years as Head of Sustainability at PepsiCo in Brazil. But eventually, Claudia felt she had reached the limit of her impact in the company, and she knew it was time to start her own business.
Claudia was interested in the intersection of sustainability and economic opportunity. She wondered: Could families improve their futures by simply changing their behavior?
Could families improve their futures by simply changing their behavior?
In 2015, Claudia founded So+ma, a social enterprise that changes behaviors around recycling in low-income communities of Brazil. In 2019, So+ma started operating in its third neighborhood. Today, the social enterprise has worked with nearly 2,000 families.
At stations called Casa So+ma, residents can trade in their recyclables for digital points. The points can be exchanged for income-enhancing rewards, such as food and hygiene products, as well as courses in hair cutting, sewing, programming, and English skills.
The model benefits waste picker collectives, too: Because the Casa So+ma stations only accept clean and sorted recyclables, the collectives can sell to aggregators more efficiently.
With the grant funding, Claudia plans to bring the rewards and recycling program to schools.