Build a resilient, equitable and circular waste management system to address plastic waste in our oceans

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Monday, 07 June 2021


It is not news that we have a lot of plastics in our oceans. To be precise close to 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean and 11 million tons added each year[1]. It is estimated that the amount of plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons[2]. These incomprehensibly large statistics illuminate the failure of the worldwide campaign to curb plastic pollution.

On this World Oceans Day, we call for action to launch an ambitious plan to eliminate  the flow of plastic into our oceans.

Most of the plastics in our oceans originate from land-based sources. 70% to 80% is transported from land to sea via rivers or coastlines[3]. The remaining 20% to 30% comes from marine sources such as fishing nets, lines, ropes, and abandoned vessels[4]. The former category comes primarily from mismanaged waste streams in urban and peri-urban areas. This is in part a result of economic and population growth outpacing the development of necessary waste management infrastructure.

It is estimated that 81% of plastic leakage emits from Asian rivers[5] which includes river systems in ASEAN and India. In addition to Asia, the other top emitters are in Africa (8%), Latin America (5.5%), North America (4.5%), and Europe & Oceania (less than 1%).

Coastal cities and urbanized areas are key hotspots of plastic leakage, along with cities along river systems, which ultimately carry plastic waste and sewage pollution to the ocean. Prevalent gaps in infrastructure, as well as a lack of understanding and awareness among city administrations has led to this mammoth problem for our ocean and aquatic ecosystems.

Yet, this critical task of reducing plastic leakage provides an opportunity for cities to build resilience into the core of their urban development practices. The mismanagement of waste in cities is a complex system-level challenge and connects to almost all the sustainable development goals[6]:

  • clean water and sanitation (SDG 6)
  • decent work and economic growth (SDG 8)
  • industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9)
  • sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11)
  • responsible consumption and production (SDG 12)
  • climate action (SDG 13)
  • life below water and life on land (SDG 14, 15)
  • partnerships for the goals (SDG 17)

Addressing the systematic challenge of waste management would not only solve plastic pollution, but also create valuable co-benefits for cities in terms of climate, health, jobs, and the environment.

R-Cities member cities are familiar with waste management challenges and are piloting potential solutions. For example Can Tho’s ‘Con Son Plastic Bags Reduction Model’ strives to eliminate single-use plastics;

Pune is tackling community-level engagement in waste by ‘Transforming city’s waste collection by empowering informal waste-pickers’ where the city has increased its waste collection coverage to 80% in a 3 to 5 year timeframe by creating a worker association of the informal waste-pickers/workers in the city.

Panama City is managing floating waste issues with its ‘Barrier of Garbage project’ where the city uses garbage traps to control plastic leakage.

These examples highlight different city-led approaches to resolve shared waste management challenges.

R-Cities recognized the urgent need to create a space where multiple cities can convene and share amongst peers in order to take a holistic approach to tackle plastic pollution and increase resilience. In response, we launched the ‘Urban Ocean’ program in partnership with Ocean Conservancy (OC) and The Circulate Initiative (TCI). The program brings together ocean advocates, technical experts, and city leaders/administrators to develop comprehensive solutions that meet the need and priorities of communities to create a tangible and lasting impact. The program was launched in June 2020 at World Economic Forum’s Virtual Ocean Dialogues.

The 1st cohort of the Urban Ocean program is focused on 6 learning cities from ASEAN, India, and Latin America, and is comprised of 3 distinct delivery stages:

  1. GAP Assessment –cities analyze shortcomings and opportunities within their respective waste management systems using proprietary tools; the ‘Circularity Assessment protocol (CAP)[1]’ which is deployed by the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute to create baseline data for city’s material flow. The second is the ‘opportunity assessment tool’ delivered by R-Cities, focused on scoping for project opportunities based on the CAP findings to enhance each cities’ waste management systems;
  2. Design Proposal –learning cities are paired with R-Cities network of 5 mentor cities selected for their experience and expertise in waste management, circularity, and recycling. The city pairing groups support the learning cities to create holistic project ideas interconnecting resilience with resolving the plastic leakage problem;
  3. Accelerator Summit –designed to help cities structure implementation and action plans for their project ideas by pitching to a selected group of project financers, corporate partners, and funders.

The program recently completed the learning cities’ CAP baseline assessments, which has unlocked critical data and material flow facts to support city leadership desicion-making. For example, one Indonesian city has a dynamic informal and formal plastic recycling system, but fails to collect waste door-to-door from its citizens and lacks waste segregation at source. AVietnamese city has only 9% plastic waste in its waste system, consisting almost entirely of multi-layered food packaging, which due to its low-value is not usually not accepted by recyclers.

Based on the data and learning cities’ enabling environment and priorities, R-Cities is deploying project workshops in all cities, to be completed by Q3 of 2021.

After completion of project scoping workshops, R-Cities plans to deliver design proposals in Q4 2021 and schedule an Accelerator Summit in Singapore by Q1 2022.

In addition to the completion of 1st cohort cities and continuing our support to project implementation in learning cities, we intend to scale up the program further to reach more cities in Latin America and India. R-Cities and our program partners Ocean Conservancy and The Circulate Initiative are seeking additional partners to join us in this audacious mission to stop plastic leakage and establish more resilient, circular, and equitable systems for cities globally.

Learn More About Our Urban Ocean Program

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