As COP26 leaders gather in Glasgow in two weeks to seek ways to take collective actions that can mitigate the effects of climate change, one important area for them to address is plastic waste pollution. While on the face of it ocean plastic may seem to be an environmental crisis wholly separate from climate change, new studies confirm it’s just the opposite: plastic pollution contributes to climate change. And now for the first time, thanks to a new research tool, we can measure exactly how much improving plastic waste management is reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here’s how.
We’ve known for some time that climate related impacts of waste management are significant. When I focused on investing in recycling infrastructure in the US — whether at Walmart
However, scientists have reported that most of the plastic that enters the environment leaks from a handful of countries in Asia and we haven’t been able to quantify how mitigating plastic waste in that region could translate into lower GHG emissions. This is because countries such as India and Indonesia have specific waste collection methods and end of life scenarios such as open dumping, unmanaged landfills, dumping in water bodies, open burning, cement kilns and incineration.
That is, however, until now. Asia now has its first ever tool that can estimate the GHG impact of plastic waste management. This work was released this fall by The Circulate Initiative (full disclosure, my company’s mission aligned non-profit partner), based on the findings of a paper published by Circulate Capital and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), a unit of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
PLACES – Plastic Lifecycle Assessment Calculator for the Environment and Society, inspired by the US EPA’s WARM tool, is a first of its kind offering, with the ability to assess the climate impact of current waste management practices in Asia, from open burning to recycling. Plastic waste is everyone’s problem, and this tool is therefore designed as an open-sourced prototype calculator that tracks the GHG emissions reductions, energy and water savings of waste management and recycling solutions that prevent plastic pollution in India and Indonesia.
What this means for investors and for our planet
The launch of the PLACES tool comes at a critical time. With mounting pressure to limit global warming to 1.5C as urged in the 2021 Sixth Assessment Report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, countries are calling on emerging economies like India and Indonesia to drastically curb emissions. A new Deloitte study found that Southeast Asia could lose $28 trillion in services, tourism, and manufacturing, if it fails to act fast on climate change.
The new GHG tool should give climate investors the juice they need to accelerate plastic waste solutions. Using the tool, investors can now measure precisely the extent to which a deal generates quantifiable environmental benefit, in the form of plastic and other waste newly managed and no longer leaking into the environment and reduction/avoidance of GHG emissions.
The positive climate impacts could be enormous. While plastic waste pollution contributes to climate change, transitioning to a circular economy can reduce GHG emissions globally by 10 billion tons a year by 2050. The team’s research found that almost 150 million tons of GHG would be avoided if 100 percent of plastic leakage in India and Indonesia was prevented by 2030. This is equivalent to shutting down 40 coal-fired power plants.
The investment team at Circulate Capital has used this tool to estimate that our portfolio of six companies in India can expect to reduce GHGs by 6.9 million tonnes by 2030, the equivalent of one year’s emissions from 1.5 million cars.
Now that is huge impact.
Our climate challenges are so vast and complex. So, it is critical that we are able to measure the various causes of climate change and translate them into quantifiable outcomes for investors. India and Indonesia are just the start, and I look forward to seeing the progress that The Circulate Initiative makes in developing new versions of the tool for other emerging countries.